The Michigan State Spartans are one of the few consistent entities in college basketball we can count on. Year in and year out, it is nearly guaranteed that the program will be something special.
During the Tom Izzo era, we would find it easier to discover an alien searching Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania for good Internet access than to find a Spartans team not in contention for a Big Ten title.
That’s where we are, yet again, with this season’s version of Michigan State, even though it is different from other variations of this program. Izzo will trot out a much younger, less veteran-heavy squad than he has in the past. In spite of that, there’s no reason to think there will be a huge drop in win production from a program that went 29-6 last season.
To put in perspective what Michigan State lost, which is A LOT: The Chicago Bulls drafted forward Denzel Valentine in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft; sharpshooting guard Bryn Forbes signed with the San Antonio Spurs (he made the team); center Matt Costello is now with the Memphis Grizzlies; Deyonta Davis, a one-and-done talent, is also finding his way in the NBA; and forward Colby Wollenman is now enrolled in medical school at Vanderbilt.
A bunch of production gone baby, gone.
Izzo lost a handful of NBA-level players in a single offseason. Usually, that would be enough to have a program take a few steps back. Then again, Izzo isn’t your everyday basketball coach and Michigan State isn’t some ho-hum program.
Izzo is bringing in his highest-rated class of freshmen in his own storied history with the university. That’s a wild thing to think about when one considers how successful he has been for a few decades.
Before jumping to discuss the hype train that has arrived in East Lansing, let’s talk about some of the key returning talents.
Eron Harris is Michigan State’s leading returning scorer at 9.3 points per game. The guard shot close to 44 percent last season on three-point attempts.
Senior guard Alvin Ellis III, who often found himself in Izzo’s famed doghouse, can add depth to the backcourt. Another senior, Gavin Schilling, is coming back to the squad healthy after dealing with a foot injury for most of last season. Matt McQuaid, who will be asked — at least in part — to fill Forbes’ sharpshooting shoes, is also returning after successful surgery for a double sports hernia.
Ben Carter, a ready-to-roll transfer, offers a measure of experience. He should keep this otherwise incredibly young Michigan State team from falling off the rails at fragile points in the season.
But make no bones about it, the freshmen phenoms will make or break Izzo’s season, relative to what we expect from Michigan State teams.
Miles Bridges is the youngster who brings the most hype, a wild thing to think about when considering there are other top-45 players joining him on the roster.
An explosive, do-it-all small forward, Bridges is ranked the eighth-best player in the 2016 class. He is expected to play multiple positions for Michigan State, and can become Izzo’s newest utility player. He could be more position-less than he is defined, transcending the small forward role many want to peg him into.
It will still be a learning process for Bridges, as it is for all freshmen, but he has the potential to be incredibly special.
Joshua Langford, a top-20 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, is a two-guard who is yet another multidimensional talent in Michigan State’s new but deep backcourt.
For good measure, Cassius Winston — ANOTHER highly-touted guard — is joining the fold, as is big man Nick Ward, who fits Izzo’s preference of being an undersized big (6-8) who likes creating contact as much as he does scoring buckets.
In a weird twist, the Spartans are facing a rather brutal non-conference schedule to start the season. Games against Arizona, Kentucky, Duke, and other solid squads, are awaiting this inexperienced team. It puts the Spartans in a position to enter Big Ten play with a less than stellar record, which might result in an uneducated hyperbolic reaction to the team, but should expedite the development of these young players.
Expect a rough — relative to MSU — start for the Spartans this season, but don’t allow it to cloud what is the only important thing to the program, which is being battle-tested come the start of the Big Ten schedule and then March.
Moreover, by then Michigan State will merely be scratching the surface of its inevitable greatness, something that should scare the heck out of other teams in the nation.
Out with the excellent old, in with the excellent new for Tom Izzo. What else is new?