Tom Izzo has another wealth of talent at his disposal for the 2016-17 season. But the Hall of Fame Michigan State head coach seems to be missing a couple of familiar ingredients: signature-type seniors and at least one big man.
The exiting of Gavin Schilling hit both categories at the same time. Schilling, one of Izzo’s two four-year scholarship seniors, will miss an undetermined amount of time due to a non-contact knee injury. The 6-foot-9, 240-pounder will need surgery.
“…It’s a problem. There’s no other way to say it. But it’s not, like I said, we’re going to play with two or three centers either,” Izzo said, per a transcript provided by MSU.
With Ben Carter out of the picture, Izzo won’t really be able to play two bigs. During preseason workouts, the 6-foot-9, 225-pound graduate-transfer from UNLV suffered an ACL injury. According to Izzo, Carter’s condition “doesn’t look great,” either.
Izzo still has guards, though. He still has scorers.
Here’s what to expect from the No. 9-preseason-ranked Spartans, who should compete for a top spot in the Big Ten… per the usual. Izzo will just have to do some juggling this time around.
Freshman Nick Ward might have to shoulder big-man duties this season. During the summer, Izzo said that he was impressed with Ward’s conditioning — citing a bit of a weight loss. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Ward — a former 4-star recruit — seems like the obvious choice to plug into the middle.
“He has a great skill around the basket to score. He has vacuum hands and shoots a little better from the line than I thought he would,” Izzo said. “The big key with him would be keeping him out of foul trouble would be one, and get him in the best shape of his life.
“When we recruited him, when you had Ben Carter, you had Gavin Schilling, you could think of him as one role. Now you have to think of him as a completely different role. But I think he’s capable of fill that role.”
A splash of Zach Randolph? Possibly. The “poor man’s version,” said Izzo, who cited Ward’s 23-pound weight loss and southpaw nature. Go ahead and think of Derrick Nix, too. There might be a little of “RIP to da competition” in Ward, too. Those lefties have an edge.
In 2015, Kenny Goins proved to be a valuable rebounder and sporadic scorer. Now a redshirt sophomore, the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder will certainly have to up his level of play now that Schilling and Carter are unavailable. Clocking more minutes shouldn’t be an issue, assuming he’s fully recovered from a knee injury back in mid-February.
Deceptively athletic, redshirt senior Matt Van Dyk might slip into a larger role — the injuries up front essentially bumped-up the rotation by two spots. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he should add help on the boards and in the paint.
He’s one of the best shooters and overall athletes on the team, but Kyle Ahrens could actually play power forward this year. He’ll still roll out as a guard, but he’ll also assist efforts in the front court. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Ahrens has “farm boy” strength — again, something needed up front for a team thin at the 4 and 5.
Not a big. Not really a guard. Wing guy. Call him that. An ambidextrous dunk machine out of Flint: Miles Bridges, a 5-star phenom, must considered among Izzo’s best recruits. He has everything rolled into one.
“As far as Miles, I hate to put that kind of pressure on him, but he’s got shoulders two ax handles wide,” said Izzo, who’s nabbed some of Flint’s best throughout his 22-year career as head coach. “I should be able to put that kind of pressure on him. He’s definitely up there.
“He’s different. He’s different. You know, he’s got that powerful explosiveness like Jason Richardson, who was one of the best. Zach (Randolph) was one of the best. But Miles, I think, can play both ends. Miles has a high basketball IQ. He can do some Draymond (Green) things where he can make passes and plays. He’s way better than any of those guys that I had with both hands.”
Bridges could become the focal point of the Spartans’ offense. Losing Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes to graduation and the NBA creates a void. On a stead night, Valentine and Forbes could easily combine for 35 points at any given time.
When they caught fire, well, 50 combined points were well in reach.
Izzo doesn’t want to apply too much pressure to Bridges, but Bridges has already set high standards. During his commitment ceremony at Flint’s Mott College, Bridges said he took serious the Flint-Michigan State aspect and wanted to immediately contribute in any way possible.
He was meant for Michigan State. He’s prepared to perform.
Expect Bridges to run neck-and-neck with redshirt senior Eron Harris, who transferred from West Virginia, in the team-scoring-leader department.
One year ago, Harris talked about becoming a great finisher. He wanted to be one of the best in the Big Ten, he said prior to the 2016 conference tournament in his hometown of Indianapolis. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, he has in-between size — however, despite a dip in scoring, he’s actually become one of the Spartans’ better defenders.
That’s not to say that he won’t be one of Izzo’s top scorers — because he will.
But he’ll work on both ends this year, something he hadn’t really done before transferring to Michigan State.
Despite suffering a double-sports hernia, sophomore Matt McQuaid certainly deserves attention and credit heading into the season. As a freshman, he knocked down veteran-like shots. Lots of them. And against big opponents, such as Kansas.
At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, McQuaid has the body to put up shots. He’s tall with long arms. He’s tree-trunk stocky in the legs. He can shoot, too. Considering he was behind two of the better 3-shooters in 2015-16, McQuaid’s debut of 27-for-66 should be recognized. Forty-one percent.
He’ll be valuable from the perimeter. Combine his “bonkers” energy, a term used by Izzo in 2015-16, and McQuaid has all the makings of a key supporting cast member.
“We’ve lost a lot of shooting from last year, especially in Denzel. In Bryn,” Izzo said. “I think we’re going to gain a tremendous amount with some other guys, but mostly Matt McQuaid I think is going to be a key.”
A long sacred position to Izzo, the job of point guard could be split between junior Lourawls “Tum-Tum” Nairn — who has carried himself like as senior for two years — and true freshman Cassius Winston, who is regarded as one of the purest passers in the 2016 class.
“When he was a sophomore in high school, (assistant coach) Dwayne Stephens and I were talking in the office, I said he (Winston) could be the best passer since Magic Johnson in this state,” Izzo said. “Two weeks or three weeks of practice has not changed my opinion of him one way or another.”
Nairn has improved shooting, said Izzo. However, Nairn has never been a scorer. Defense and leadership. Setting up other guys. That’s what he does best — and he’s done it well.
But the Spartans need a scoring point man, something along the lines of Kalin Lucas or Keith Appling or even peak-level Travis Trice — all speedy guys who could dent the scoreboard with relative ease. Lucas and Appling, especially.
Winston could fill both roles, both facilitating and manufacturing points.
Alvin Ellis, Izzo’s other four-year scholarship senior, and Josh Langford, a true freshman, should provide balance to Michigan State’s group of guards. Ellis has battled injuries and inconsistencies, but the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder should be a valuable two-way guy, serving as a guard and likely playing bigger when needed.
As for Langford, well, he’s the most unheralded of the freshmen. With that said, he’s one of few five-time players of the year in any state. He won the 3A honor five years running. In Alabama, middle schoolers are eligible to play varsity in some cases, just like in Izzo’s home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Winning, and doing so at a high level for five years, might be Langford’s best quality.
“He did an incredible job at the school he was at, and if I can get him from being too much demanding on himself…” Izzo said. “He’s a guy that puts a lot of pressure on himself… I tell him, In baseball if you strike out seven out of 10 times, if you fly out, if you don’t get hits, you can be an All-Star.
“(In) Basketball, you’re still going to miss half your shots and you’d be considered a star. Josh still struggles with that a little bit, but what a nice problem to have.”