Michigan State will turn early to the best freshman class of Tom Izzo's career
Meet the Spartan freshmen who are going to have to be really good really fast
No team in college basketball has taken a bigger hit with its expectations and outlook this preseason than Michigan State. Tom Izzo, newly inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, finds himself on the precipice of a season unlike any he's ever had with a roster more reliant on freshmen than any other in his 22-year coaching career.
In early October, key graduate transfer Ben Carter went down in practice, re-injuring the knee he spent all offseason rehabbing. Given Carter sidelined himself by hurting the same knee he spent months rehabiliating, there is no indication he'll play for MSU in 2016-17.
Then, on Oct. 14, pivotal big man Gavin Schilling went down with a non-contact injury to his right knee. Surgery was needed, though a source told me no structural damage was found. Still, Schilling's status and timeline on his return is still to be determined, but he definitely won't be playing to start the season.
These incidents and accidents are colliding with Izzo bringing aboard his most celebrated recruiting class ever. (Good timing.) MSU's incoming class ranks No. 3 in 247 Sports' database. Miles Bridges (No. 12 in the 247 Sports composite), Josh Langford (20), Cassius Winston (33) and Nick Ward (41) will all be called upon immediately, especially Bridges and Ward. Izzo's never been shy to use five-star freshmen before, but he's not keen on having to use them like this.
So now Michigan State is going to be a watchable mystery and one of the must-see teams to start the season. The Spartans' new style and rotation is not going to look anything like a normal Michigan State squad. We're going to see an MSU team that resembles the stylings of Villanova or Butler rather than a typical Izzo-coached group. They don't have a lot of size, and worse, they don't have players with a lot of experience guarding big men. Sparty has one player with any experience guarding Division I bigs -- Kenny Goins, who is 6-foot-7 and coming back from his own knee injury in February.
The size issue also means Michigan State has a rebounding issue. We almost never see Izzo's teams overmatched in size or effort on the glass, but it's an inevitability now. Expect plenty of zone, plus traps and different tweaks (some press?) in Izzo's defensive scheme. He's going to have to be creative.
As for the freshmen, let's look at all of them right now and give you a better idea of who they are, how their roles have already changed and what they'll be asked to do when the season starts Nov. 11.
Miles Bridges: An athletic freak who will probably wind up being a positionless, powerful weapon on both ends. If MSU runs a "four-guard" lineup out there, Bridges would essentially play power guard/wing in that lineup. He's got the dexterity to do it. If he's guarded by a smaller player, he can post up. If a big picks him up, he can shoot from deep, put the ball on the floor and play off the bounce well. Bridges is terrific in transition, has B-to-B-plus ball skills and already has a knack for working screens. He resembles Justise Winslow and Draymond Green in that he can guard at least four positions at the college level. He poses a huge matchup problem for most teams.
Josh Langford: A do-it-all type of shooting guard. Very good ball skills, a willing passer, someone who thrives in hitting jumpers on the run. Plus, he'll probably now average more than five rebounds per game for MSU. He's solid around the rim in all facets. I'm not sure if he'll be starting for MSU in its season-opener against Arizona, but my guess is he's in the lineup more times than not by the end of the season. Langford didn't make the cut on our list of the top 100 (and one) players in college hoops this year, and I'm already wondering if we made a misstep there.
Nick Ward: Now the most pivotal freshman of the four. Ward is the only true big Izzo can rely on -- and he's already being asked to do much more than what was initially expected of him. Ward still needs to find a good mean streak, but his hands are terrific. He has really good touch around the rim and overall has a feel and ability to accept the ball in the post. Conditioning-wise, he's coming along well. His aggressiveness might a problem in that MSU cannot afford to have him in foul trouble. But he's a freshman, and so he's probably going to get into foul trouble. When that happens, everything really gets dicey for MSU. Ward will be asked to log more than 25 minutes per game.
Cassius Winston: The shrew point guard will have some time to adapt, as he'll be backing up Tum-Tum Nairn and should be a nice role player for MSU this season (barring any more injuries). Winston has great floor vision, plays in a mature style and is extremely tough. I watched a number of his games in summer basketball on the Nike circuit last year, and I walked away thinking he was the most important player on his team in most of the games he played.
Right now, Ward, Bridges, Matt McQuaid, Eron Harris, Langford, Goins, Winston and Nairn comprise Sparty's rotation. Talented but enigmatic right now. You'll notice 50 percent of that rotation involves players yet to play one minute in college basketball.
As for the tough schedule, MSU will have five games in the first month against clear-cut NCAA Tournament teams ... and none of those games will be on MSU's floor. It begins with Arizona in Hawaii, then Kentucky in New York (big-time plane trip) four days later for the Champions Classic. The Bahamas come soon after that in the always-loaded Battle 4 Atlantis. It all wraps up with a trip to Duke on Nov. 29 for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The good thing for MSU and its schedule is, they're playing teams who are also relying on freshmen. Arizona, Duke and Kentucky can all potentially be exposed by their youth. All really talented teams, like Michigan State, but none infallible in November -- especially Duke, which is dealing with injury issues of its own.
We still have Michigan State ranked in our preseason poll, but chances are good this team will have wild swings in its first four weeks. It will have promise, too. The benefit here is getting the freshmen as old as fast as possible. The Michigan State team we see in November won't look anything like the team we saw last year, and by the time we get to March, that Sparty group will be plenty different from what it was at season's start.
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