Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is known for having senior led teams with a lot of college basketball experience. Last year, the Spartans were carried by the phenomenal senior backcourt of Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes. These two stars have now departed MSU and are both now on NBA rosters. In the front court, they were led by senior Matt Costello and freshman Deyonta Davis. This big-man duo now plays together for the Memphis Grizzlies. Valentine was a true floor general with a lot of playmaking ability. Forbes was a sharpshooting transfer from Cleveland State who played with Valentine growing up at Lansing Sexton High School. Costello far exceeded expectations last year with his play; he had a face up game and could also score with his back to the basket.
Davis wasn’t able to show his full potential as he saw limited playing time throughout the year. When he was on the court, he affected the game with big plays. There were spurts where Davis seemed to be the Spartans most skilled player.
Although these guys were skilled, their leadership will be missed most. This season, Michigan State brought in four ESPN top 100 players. This recruiting class is the best that Izzo has had in his career. There is not a void in skill for the Spartans this year, but maybe one in maturity. Izzo is not used to giving his freshmen a heavy workload but that will be different for this season’s group. Izzo’s highest rated and most NBA ready recruit is freshmen Miles Bridges out of Huntington Prep. Bridges was ranked eighth in the country coming out of high school and for very obvious reasons. He is a 6’7″ 225 lb freak athlete that jumps out of the gym and attacks the rim at will. Not only is he strong and tough, but he has a lot of passion for the game. His jump shot needs some work, but it will become better with time. Bridges will need to rebound the ball well as the Spartans have injuries to two of their big men. He will arguably be Michigan State’s best player this year as a freshmen and is a likely candidate to be a one and done.
The second highest recruit the Spartans added is 6’6″ shooting guard Josh Langford who came in as the 19th ranked player in the nation. Langford is an explosive wing with a pretty pull-up jumper. He is a scorer which is something a few of the Spartan guards have had trouble with in the past. Langford should see quality time this season and will be key to the Spartans success. The third highest rated recruit the Spartans signed is 31st ranked prospect Cassius Winston out of U of D Jesuit. He was able to put on a show in front of Izzo last winter as he carried his team to a state championship at the Breslin.
Winston is a facilitating point guard who will knock down the open shot when needed. It is a tough task to even begin to live up to the point guard play of Valentine, but Winston is similar in how well he can manage the game. He is able to make up for his lack of athleticism with his court vision and awareness. Don’t be surprised if you see a fair amount of Winston to Bridges lobs throughout the season.
The last of the Spartans big time recruits is 39th ranked Nick Ward. Ward is a 6’8″ 230 lb big man that brings back memories of the Michigan State great Zach Randolph. His big frame can bang opposing bigs, and he is mobile for his size. He lacks athleticism but makes up for it with his strength. Ward’s post game is alright, but he has room for improvement. If you let him catch it too deep, he will make you pay with his lefty baby-hook that is his go to move. With the Spartans lack of a big-man presence, Ward will be expected do a lot of the dirty work down low.
To add to the exciting group of freshmen there are a couple more veteran players looking to make an impact. One of those players is junior point guard (Tum Tum) Lourawls Nairn Jr. who is the leader of the team. Tum Tum is very quick and is a hassle defensively for opposing guards. He had trouble scoring in the 2015 season and has little to no jump shot. While he isn’t the most skilled player, his energy and talk is crucial for the inexperienced Spartans.
Another key returner is guard Eron Harris who transferred two years ago from West Virginia. Harris has had a very different roles at MSU than at WVU. He is a streaky scorer who averaged 18 points per game at West Virginia but has had a decreased role while at MSU. Harris has had his struggles defensively and looks to improve his defense in the future. This year, Eron will need to step it up and get his swagger back that he played with while at West Virginia.
A third returning guard who will have a big impact on the season is sophomore Matt McQuaid. McQuaid is a sharpshooter who has gotten stronger and became more versatile over the past year. He will, along with Harris, see a role increase and will need to fill it up for the Spartans’ offense. He has become a gutsy defender that is willing to take charges and put his body on the line. With McQuaid being able to do it on both ends of the court, the Spartans will depend on him this season.
In terms of the returning big men for the Spartans, there aren’t many. With senior power forward Gavin Schilling and senior center Ben Carter sidelined to injury, they will look to sophomore forward Kenny Goins to have a productive year. Goins and Ward will carry the undersized Spartan front court while they will look to play a small and fast lineup often. What it will come down to is the freshmen sensations living up to the hype combined with returners growing into their expanding roles.