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MSU Spartans Basketball — Mid-Season Report

The NCAA basketball season is typically full of ups and downs for all teams. Looking at the Big Ten alone, it was Ohio State, Michigan, and Maryland who caught all the early praises in the conference this season. Two of those teams find themselves not even ranked in the top 25 anymore. Maryland remains toward the top of the league along with the Fighting Illini of Illinois and as per usual…the Tom Izzo coached Michigan State Spartans.

In an era of the one-and-dones and other kids leaving well before they play their allotted four years of college ball, Izzo’s program is just different. While he has lost his fair share of talent to early NBA aspirations of underclassmen, Izzo’s Spartans have always been an upperclassmen led program. Players who stick it out for the full four years experience every emotion and get challenged at every level of their existence. And those who graduate from the Izzo program generally grow not only as a basketball player, but they also grow as human beings. It’s just not like any other program in the country.

This is why the MSU teams who lose a couple of key seniors (like Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid) it’s like they are starting fresh with the start of a new season. And they always look pretty rough in the early going and almost always lose to the bigger programs as they did this year against Kentucky and Duke (and throw in Virginia Tech for good measure). Add that with having two current seniors on the shelf for nearly the whole season (Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens), and the growing pains they are experiencing are unavoidable.

While I mentioned these things here, these aren’t things ever discussed by Coach Izzo or others at the school. Stuff happens. You adapt and overcome, or you at least fight as hard as you can to do so. I am not sure if that is part of the player handbook for the basketball recruits, but it is certainly no secret that this is to be expected by those who want to play on the squad.

All aboard the Spartans Roller Coaster!

After a rough start in losing to Kentucky, Virginia Tech, and being somewhat dominated by Duke, the Spartans found themselves 5-3 in their first eight games. They had some decent wins in there against Georgia, Seton Hall, and UCLA, but it was still not the start that was expected of the preseason #1 team in the country.

The schedule lightened up quite a bit, although the win over Rutgers turned out to be a good one. I remember watching that game and thinking MSU should’ve lost that game and wondering if they were even a top 25 team at that point. Little did I know that Rutgers was a contender for the league title this year WOW.

The Spartans cruised to some easy wins over much lesser opponents after that. Then their star player and arguably the best guard in the country Cassius Winston missed a game against Western Michigan. Sure it was only Western Michigan, but something happened in that game. MSU had to learn to play without their leader for the first time. And while it was only a win over Western Michigan, the team seemed to slowly start clicking on all cylinders offensively.

I remember watching the next game against Illinois and seeing the starting five of Illinois and a few of their bench players and thinking “this team is loaded!” MSU HANDLED them in a 20-point win. And I dare say this was one of the best offensive performances I’ve seen by the Spartans in the last couple of years. They were moving the ball and making extra passes and finding shooters in rhythm. It was a thing of beauty.

Since that game Illinois has won 6 games in a row. Illinois is really good. MSU showed us what they are capable of as they simply wore down the Fighting Illini, and the game was never even in question.

Follow that up with another dominant performance against the University of Michigan and a great shooting performance from 3-point land, and MSU was flying high and looking like the #1 team in the country.

That feeling was very short lived.

Against Minnesota at home they just didn’t look nearly as good. They won by 16 and won easily, but this didn’t feel the same as the previous three wins. The Golden Gophers of Minnesota are another team with some great talent, especially sophomore center (and future NBA player) Daniel Oturu. I gotta think Richard Petino should be fired after this season with his team badly under-performing, as this win by MSU was simply too easy.

Then they played just about the same against Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana. The big difference here was Purdue showed up to PLAY. Coach Matt Painter clearly followed the blueprint of previous coaches who have had success against MSU recently. They stayed low and got wide with their arms out, making it difficult to pass the ball. MSU couldn’t hit a jumper to save their lives early on, and Purdue proved that they wanted it more, as they DRUBBED the Spartans by 29 points! Izzo said after the game that it was his worst loss since he’s coached for MSU.

It feels like they are close…

MSU looked a little better at home against Wisconsin in a good win, then they looked like they were stuck in mud against Indiana for 40 minutes. Indiana was attacking their pick and roll aggressively and double-teaming Winston on defense. This proved to be very effective, and the only reason MSU cut the lead to 7 at the half was because they hit some big threes toward the end of the first half.

The Spartans made some adjustments at half time to the aggressive defense of Indiana, but to me the game was summed up by one single play about half way through the 2nd half.

MSU had Indiana reeling and winded as Freshman Malik Hall jammed a dunk home on a hard screen and roll. A defensive stop was followed by a shake-n-bake three by fellow Freshman Rocket Watts. The Spartans were up by three now. Both teams went back and forth a bit with no scores, and MSU had a chance to run it and Sophomore Aaron Henry just stopped…held the ball, and gave it up to Cassius Winston.

Now this might not have seemed like a big deal to many, but my jaw literally dropped when it happened. Indiana was tired. They were taking terrible shots, and the MSU defense was wearing them down. MSU didn’t necessarily have numbers, but they had a quick outlet pass and were ready to run…and they stopped. They slowed it all down. This is typically when the Spartans get into trouble, and boy did it cost them here.

They sputtered on offense heaving a shot that bounced off the backboard as the shot clock expired, and Indiana had time to catch their breath with 8:42 to go in the game and down by three. Indiana looked to have a bit of a hop in their step again, and they came down and ran their offense and hit a big three to tie it up.

MSU went on to lose to Indiana by two.

Last year’s incredible run featured an exhausting and relentless push up the court on offense and typical Izzo-coached lock-down defense. This “stop running and slow things down” concept was not a part of MSU success last year, and it has not worked out EVER this year, although they seem to keep trying it out for some reason.

Sure enough the Spartans had a chance to tie it at the end of regulation, and they took the same approach as Winston went one on five and missed the runner.

They just won by 18 over Minnesota yesterday, but they were doing the same exact thing the entire first half–holding the ball at the top of the key for 5-10 seconds and then starting this really long and slowly developing offense that either results in a missed awful jump shot or a turnover. It is simply cringe-worthy to watch and very predictable.

Thank God Minnesota is still in “under-performance mode”, because MSU was able to try some different things on offense and seemed to get it figured out in the second half, much like they did with their run of softer opponents earlier in the season.

The Underclassmen are the Key to Success

I know I know what I said about MSU being such an upperclassmen led program. But let’s face it, they literally only have one upperclassman left here. Langford is out for the rest of his college career. Ahrens doesn’t look like he’s going to be back. Junior big-man Xavier Tillman simply does what Tillman does…he’s a known quantity at this point. Henry has been hot and cold. Hall has become a great rebounder and defensive player. Watts has emerged as a serious offensive threat from anywhere on the court. Sophomore wing and three point specialist Gabe Brown looks like he could take over games at any point.

To me it’s the freshman and sophomore combination of those three players who will ultimately decide where this team goes. Sophomore Marcus Bingham clearly needs to work on his strength and endurance before he can take it to the next level for more than a few minutes at a time. Sophomore Thomas Kithier seems to have maxed out what he can do, and he’s a solid big off the bench. Sophomore point guard Foster Loyer has improved the most on the team since a year ago and has helped the offense flow much better.

But it’s still Brown, Hall, and Watts who seem to determine which direction the team goes. We could throw Aaron Henry in with those three as well I suppose.

The great news about the Spartans for 2020-2021 is that they are only losing one senior who plays…the bad news is that they will be losing a legend in Senior guard Cassius Winston.

So let’s keep focus on this season. This team will likely continue to shift directions multiple times before the season is finished. How will the 2019-2020 NCAA Basketball season wrap up for the Spartans of Michigan State?

Give me a week or two after some more big games, and I’ll give ya my two to 79 cents 😉

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