College basketball is finally back, and the Michigan State Spartans will get their long-awaited opportunity to wash last year’s first round NCAA Tournament upset against No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State University out of their mouths. There is just as many questions as there is optimism surrounding the Spartans in 2016-17. They lost a lot, but coach Tom Izzo has what many are calling his most talented freshmen class ever. The challenge for the Spartans will be finding leadership in the upperclassmen, while still letting the talent of the newcomers shine through.
- G/F Denzel Valentine (graduated)
- G Bryn Forbes (graduated)
- C Matt Costello (graduated)
- F/C Deyonta Davis (one-and-done)
Like I said, the Spartans lost a lot. Denzel Valentine was one of the most dynamic players and leaders in school history, becoming the first player ever to average 19 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds. Everybody knew Valentine as a terrific play-maker, and he was, but a very underrated aspect of his game was his shooting ability. Valentine shot over 44 percent from the three-point line, making him elite from beyond the arc. He wasn’t even the Spartans biggest deep threat. That honor went to Bryn Forbes who shot a remarkable 48 percent from the three-point line, good for second best in the country. What might provide the biggest drop off for the Spartans this season, is how well they shoot the three. Last year, they were No. 1 in the country in three-point shooting, and it added an entirely new element to their game.
Not only did the Spartans lose a lot in the backcourt, they took a hit in the frontcourt as well with the departures of Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis. Costello was a senior, and while his play was frustrating at times, he did average 10 points and eight rebounds last season. Davis was a more interesting story. The surprising one-and-done took advantage of the limited playing time he had at MSU, and opted to go straight into the NBA despite a lot of experts saying another year in East Lansing could really help his draft status. Davis was still touted as a lottery pick, but fell to the second round of the NBA Draft.
- F Miles Bridges
- G Joshua Langford
- G Cassius Winston
- C Nick Ward
Without a doubt, this is Izzo’s most highly-touted recruiting class, led by Naismith Watch List forward Miles Bridges. I am aboard the Miles Bridges hype train. The kid is as explosive as they come, and equips that with a sweet shooting stroke, making it impossible to play him one way. It’ll be a tad easier to play Joshua Langford one way, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a nightmare. Langford is terrific at attacking the basket and making plays for others. What he lacks as a three-point shooter, he more than makes up for on the defensive end. If Izzo plays this right, Bridges and Langford could be one of the more dynamic duos in Spartan history, albeit that it would only likely last a year.
Point guard Cassius Winston is a floor general in every sense of the word. Though he has the ability to be a prolific scorer, Winston looks for his teammates first, and has the vision and ability to get them the ball exactly where they want it. One of those players will be Nick Ward. Ward is a bruiser in much the same vein that former Spartan Derrick Nix was. Super strong, not super athletic. Hopefully Ward will fully embrace the Nix comparison and tweet “R.I.P ta da competition” after every win.
- G Eron Harris, senior
- G Alvin Ellis III, senior
- F Gavin Schilling, senior
- G Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., junior
Eron Harris is Michigan State’s leading returning scorer at 9.3 points per game, and will be a main asset from downtown this season after shooting almost 44 percent from beyond the arc in 2015-16. And if Alvin Ellis III doesn’t prove his worth early, he could find himself exactly where he was a year ago… on the bench. Eliis hasn’t quite been able to find his role at Michigan State, but if he can impress more than any of the young guys this year, he should see increased opportunity.
Gavin Schilling will be a key cog this year, whenever he returns (if he returns). Schilling underwent knee surgery in mid-October and there is no definitive timetable for his return. When that happens, he will be looked at to really take the next step in his game. He’ll have to be a little tougher and a lot more consistent if the Spartans want the season they believe they’re capable of having. Same goes for Lourawls Nairn Jr.. Because the Spartans have so many weapons on offense, “Tum Tum” might not have to become a high-volume scorer, but he will need to establish himself as more of an offensive threat. Nairn will still be looked at to get major minutes at point guard, and will have to limit mistakes and continue to play his impressive defense if he doesn’t want to get benched in favor of Winston.
In typical Tom Izzo fashion, the Spartans will be tested against college basketball’s elite early and often.
On Nov. 11, they face No. 10 Arizona in Hawaii to start the season, then five days later they play No. 2 Kentucky in New York City. The Spartans then to the Bahamas to play three games (potential opponents are St. John’s, Baylor or VCU, and Louisville or Wichita State). On Nov. 29 they travel to Durham to take on No. 1 Duke. That’s just the non-conference.
The Big Ten looks to have plenty of good teams this year, and it will be a fight for any team looking to claim the conference crown. The early part of the season will be huge in preparing the young Spartans for the battles in conference and tournament play. The key this year will be to let the young studs flourish and not hold them back like it can be argued Izzo did with Davis last year.