Michigan State (16-11, 8-6 Big Ten) is back in action Thursday night (7 p.m. ET on ESPNU) when they host Nebraska (12-14, 6-8 Big Ten). The Spartans will be going for a season sweep of the Huskers, but will be without the services of senior guard Eron Harris.
Harris of course has been ruled out for the year after suffering a brutal knee injury last weekend on the road at Purdue. Head coach Tom Izzo has had a few days to really think over how to juggle his lineup once again, something he’s done far too often this year.
Without Harris, that means a number of guys will need to step up. A good guy to look at first is fellow senior Alvin Ellis III.
While his role on the team has been reduced to a contributor off the bench, the value of Ellis has climb drastically in his senior year. In his first three years, he was almost non-existent and and primarily an ‘extra’ on the team, simply because the teams before this year’s had adequate cores for go-to production. This year, Izzo has had to resort to using a bevy of lineup changes, which has allowed for players like Ellis to shine.
This year, Ellis is playing more than doubled the minutes per game (17.4) than he did in any of his previous three years with MSU. That uptick in playing time has equivocated to an uptick in scoring. He’s averaging 6.6 points per game in those 17+ minutes per game, knocking down 42.5 percent of his shots from three-point land. It’s been the primary source of Ellis’ offensive game this year, 37 of his 56 made field goals come from outside the arc. That total of 37 is also 11 more than his first three seasons combined.
If one were to extrapolate Ellis’ numbers on a ‘per 40 minutes’ ratio, he’d be averaging better than 15 PPG while also grabbing close to 7 rebounds per contest. He’s only eclisped double-digits in scoring five times this year, but three of those times have come in the last five games.
Ellis will surely get some extra looks off the bench, as should sophomore Matt McQuaid. The Duncanville, Texas-native has been a tough one to figure out. The playing time and production is up from his freshman season, close to 20 minutes per game and 5.2 PPG (3.5 as a freshman). However, he’s not cashing in as much as he, Izzo and fans would like.
MATT MCQUAID STATS
|FG %||3PT %||FT %|
Michigan State offered McQuaid a scholarship prior to last season with the hopes he could turn into a sharpshooter from the outside, whether it be off the bench or in a starting role, a la Bryn Forbes from last season. A late-season push from McQuaid would be merely a microcosm of a similar push the team makes into the NCAA Tournament.
Tom Izzo could also opt for running a dual point guard set, by having both Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. and Cassius Winston on the floor together.
Izzo has shuffled between his two point guards all season long, often using the Bahamas-native junior Nairn in situations where defense and ball-handling is of the utmost priority during the game. Then he’d turn to the Detroit Jesuit product and freshman Winston when the team needs a jolt of offense.
There’s no doubt that Winston is the point guard of the
future for Michigan State. But desperate times call for desperate measures. And for Izzo and the Spartans, it may mean having run both of his
points on the floor at the same time. And there’s a good chance he simply may have to at times over these final handful of games, whether it be to a lack of production and/or foul trouble from the likes of Ellis and/or McQuaid.
Seeing both point guards out on the floor for Michigan State would trigger the memories of some fans back to the 2014/15 season. It was when Nairn, still a freshman at the time, took over the starting duties at point over then senior Travis Trice mid-season. The team made a miraculous run in March en route to a Final Four, partly aided to playing Nairn and Trice together at times in games.
It’s evident that everyone needs to step up in the absence of Eron Harris, including the team’s two leading scorers, freshmen Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. But specifically pertaining to the players who shared a similar role and position to Harris, expect to see guys like Ellis, McQuaid and the point guard tandem of Nairn and Winston get heightened roles and tasks.
After all, the only thing on the line for Michigan State is a 20th consecutive season in the NCAA Tournament.