With the start of college basketball season on the horizon, we’ll be taking a long look at the conference at large as well as Indiana’s roster over the next month. Today, our Big Ten team previews conclude with a look at Michigan State.
The Big Ten’s best chance to end its 17-year national championship drought is the last program to cut down the nets: Michigan State.
The Spartans had an up-and-down 2016-17 season, finishing 20-15 overall with a second round NCAA tournament loss to Kansas. But the return of Miles Bridges for his sophomore season and a deep, talented roster has expectations sky high this fall in East Lansing.
Bridges was a likely lottery pick in last year’s NBA draft, but his surprising decision to bypass the draft made the Spartans a bonafide national championship contender. The versatile forward averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game as a freshman and scored in double figures in the final 18 games of the season.
The 6-foot-7 forward is the league’s best athlete and finisher, but can also shoot it from the perimeter. Bridges shot 42 percent from behind the 3-point line in conference games as a freshman. He was also sixth in defensive rebounding percentage, seventh in block percentage and shot 54.3 percent on 2s in league play in his first season.
Bridges is the clear headliner on the roster, but Michigan State has plenty of talent surrounding him in the frontcourt. Sophomore Nick Ward was a ridiculous snub from the Big Ten all-freshman team last season despite being the league’s best offensive rebounder. Ward averaged 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game. He ranked fourth in the league in block percentage.
Freshman McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson can play both forward spots and is being discussed as a potential lottery pick next June. The 6-foot-10 Jackson can shoot it from the perimeter but can also finish efficiently in the paint. Tom Izzo will be able to play Jackson alongside Bridges and Ward and most Big Ten opponents will have no answer.
Redshirt senior Gavin Schilling, graduate senior Ben Carter and junior Kenny Goins also return in the frontcourt and a four-star recruit, Xavier Tillman, arrives. No other Big Ten program has this much frontcourt depth.
The backcourt should be anchored by a pair of sophomores – Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford. Winston split time with Lourawls Nairn as a freshman, but figures to take over as the starter at point guard this season. Winston had the second best assist rate (46.7 percent) in the country last season.
Langford, a former McDonald’s All-American, needs to take a leap forward for Michigan State to reach its potential. Langford wasn’t assertive enough offensively as a freshman despite making close to 42 percent of his 3s. With the departure of Eron Harris, Langford should have a chance to take on a larger role.
Nairn, a senior, has the trust of Izzo, can defend and is one of the program’s leaders, but isn’t efficient enough to command starter’s minutes. Junior Matt McQuaid, who started 11 games last season, saw his 3-point shooting percentage drop close to six percent last season.
Bottom Line: Michigan State has the Big Ten’s best roster and the league’s best coach and while there may be growing pains, the Spartans are a legitimate Final Four and national championship contender. The key for this group to reach its potential is the play of Winston and Langford. Both have to earn the trust of Izzo to the point where they’re playing the majority of the backcourt minutes. Nairn and McQuaid are much better suited for backup roles. Ward also has to be able to play more minutes. Given the favorable league schedule, it’ll be surprising if Michigan State doesn’t win the league.
Quotable: “He’ll play a lot more three. To do that, he has to get in better shape. So you know what he did? He went out and lost 12 pounds. He went from 237 to 225 and he’s still built. He’s in much better shape. He wasn’t in great condition last year. From (the perimeter), he’s got to be able to crash the boards from the outside. It’s easier to box-out a guy when they’re touching you, than when you’re coming from an open space. Also, I think he’s going to be better with the ball in open space. We’re going to try to get out and run like we used to because we have eight or nine players that we think we can play.” – Izzo to Brendan F. Quinn of The Athletic on Bridges.