Basketball Preview: Final Four Follow-Up?
Last year's Final Four run had to be the most surprising of Tom Izzo's 7 such appearances. The team was terribly inconsistent for most of the year, was strangely horrendous from the foul line, and overall, really appeared to be feeling Izzo's high-profile recruiting misses. But of course, you all know what happened when tournament time came around; Izzo's group pulled together, played their best ball of the season, and forced their way to the Final Four before those same former recruits were simply too much to handle in the national semifinal.
There's enough returning talent to again put forth a decent team- Denzel Valentine in particular should be a centerpiece. Ultimately, though, the performance of the newcomers and last year's reserves will determine how good this team is; fortunately for MSU, there's plenty to like here.
Most critical will be Tum Tum Nairn's adjustment to the starting point guard role. Last year, his incredible speed added a dimension to the offense when he was on the floor, and his leadership as a freshman was much-discussed. However, his small size made defense a challenge at times, and he was almost completely unwilling to shoot from the outside. If he's picked up a respectable outside shot, opponents will find him to be a headache.
West Virginia transfer Eron Harris also becomes eligible this year. In Morgantown, he provided plenty of scoring punch, and with Travis Trice and Branden Dawson both gone, there will be shots available. Despite the excitement surrounding reports of his strong play in practice, an offseason DUI arrest might put Harris on the shelf for the start of the season.
A third potential injection of talent, sophomore Javon Bess, may as well have redshirted for all the time he got last year while playing through injuries. Still, the fact that Izzo couldn't resist playing him speaks to how highly the staff thinks of his game. When on the floor, he showed uncommon defensive ability for a freshman. His low usage on offense makes it hard to judge how useful he'll be there, but Izzo always has a place for guys who are willing to re-and-D.
The incoming freshman class features two wings- Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens- and a five-star instate jewel in Deyonta Davis. McQuaid's shooting stroke might make it hard to bench him, though his slight build is going to make time in the weight room essential. Ahrens offers more game-ready size and better athleticism, but with the logjam on the wing, somebody's going to be on the short end of the minutes stick, and Ahrens is coming off of a leg injury such that a redshirt wouldn't be the worst idea.
Davis, though, is the one to watch. He's drawn some Adreian Payne comparisons, but appears to be marginally more refined on offense than Payne was coming out of high school. His dust-mop arms and absurd block totals suggest an affinity for help-side defense that will be very useful with Dawson gone. If he needs some time to develop in a smaller role, the Spartans do have capable frontcourt bodies in Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, and Marvin Clark. Still, Davis starting at power forward from day one isn't out of the question.
Hockey Preview: Blue-Line Blues
Tom Anastos' restoration of the Spartan hockey program continues to proceed in fits and starts. The team performed decently once the conference schedule began last year, but the somewhat surprising weakness of the B1G overall likely contributed to that.
Anastos' preferred style of play to this point has been a hyper-conservative, defense-oriented slog. Although it's not the most exciting style to watch, it has allowed the Spartans to grind out some wins they probably shouldn't have achieved on paper, and it also allows Anastos to maximize the impact of his best player, goaltender Jake Hildebrand. The Spartans block a ton of shots, are effective killing power plays, make life hell in their defensive zone, and rely quite heavily on their own power play to supply scoring.
There are two problems with this approach, even if you put aside the aesthetics (a polite way of saying it's not very fun to watch). First, in the big picture, this style allows relatively little margin for error; it's basically Tresselball on ice, except MSU doesn't often have a decisive talent advantage. If the Spartans do fall behind, or Munn forbid Hildebrand has an off night, their sluggish offense generally struggles to catch up, and altering their defensive orientation takes the players out of their comfort zones.
More acutely, however, this year's blue line will need some major retooling. R.J. Boyd graduated, Brock Krygier transferred to Arizona State of all places, and talented sophomore-to-be Josh Jacobs left the college game altogether in favor of the OHL. John Draeger and Travis Walsh should form a decent first line, but after that, it's either deep reserves or the incoming freshmen, Jared Rosburg and Zach Osburn, who will need to step forward in a big way if this defense-oriented strategy is going to work at all this season.
I regard the long-term prognosis for the program under Anastos to be unclear. Still. Going into his fifth season, that really can't be the case much longer. Either the team shows it can consistently compete with Minnesota and Michigan atop the conference, or it may be time to go in a different direction.
'Crootin Status: Stronk
In both flagship sports (hockey, less so, to my personal chagrin), the programs are not only stocked to compete right now, but are in excellent shape moving forward. Mark Dantonio's staff has reeled in 20 prospects for 2016 already. I a typical year, this would be a complete class, but the large senior class and the staff's continued pursuit of uncommitted players implies they're going to keep going.
The Spartans' lofty class ranking is unquestionably buoyed by numbers at the moment and will certainly decline, but if a few of the high-profile targets such as Donnie Corley or Lavert Hill give their commitments, a top-15 class would be a possibility. In particular, the DL and WR groups in this class look very promising, and should yield at least a few immediate contributors. Beyond the typical foundation of Michigan and Ohio kids, Dantonio's staff has pillaged Illinois for many of its top prospects and picked up a few pieces from elsewhere in the conference footprint.
Basketball, meanwhile, has rebounded nicely after a series of very visible letdowns. Missing on Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Cliff Alexander, and Caleb Swanigan was a series of hair-pullings for those who follow the program closely, but Izzo has rebounded nicely with '16 commitments from PF Nick Ward and SG Josh Langford, who I'm told is a distant relative of the recently departed running back.
There are still big fish left in the pond, too, with PG Cassius Winston and SF Miles Bridges being the main targets- and Michigan and Kentucky, respectively, are the chief competitors to land their signatures. Ward and Langford are a great class on their own, but landing both of the remaining targets would provide a cornerstone class for the next few years.