Following the monumental letdown of the 2016 NCAA tournament ouster at the hands of Middle Tennessee State, 2017 figured to be a reset/rebuild year.
Losing seniors Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, and Matt Costello from that team would have been enough to deal with, but MSU also saw Deyonta Davis somewhat surprisingly bolt for the NBA, and had role players Javon Bess and Marvin Clark Jr. both transfer as well despite likely being in line for considerable playing time. Finally, before the season even tipped off, seniors-to-be Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter (incoming by way of UNLV) were both lost to what would become season-eating knee injuries.
To counter these losses, Tom Izzo rolled out his most-ballyhooed class ever, with four top-75 players highlighted by Flint product Miles Bridges. Still, this was from the beginning a very young, very small team, with Bridges and fellow frosh Nick Ward being the only healthy players over 6’6”.
That youth showed in fumbling away an early chance to get a scalp off of Arizona, and the lack of size was plain to see against Kentucky, Baylor, and Duke’s talented, non-injured frontcourts. A bad stumble against unremarkable Northeastern and an ankle injury to Bridges threw serious doubt on MSU extending its consecutive NCAA tournament appearance streak.
Enter Nick “Big Puddin’” Ward, who took charge as the focal point of the offense in Bridges’ absence. With his precocious array of post moves and the ability to exile an opponent’s entire frontcourt to the bench by drawing fouls by the bunch, Ward’s unexpected maturity was a huge boon for MSU.
It would be unfair not to point out the efforts of his fellows in the front court, though. Because Ward had a tendency to get into foul trouble himself and also strangely wasn’t up to playing 40 minutes per game, Izzo often had to insert his next men up to supplement the post, which were...6’6” Kenny Goins and 6’5” Matt Van Dyk, both former walk-ons. Both had clear limitations, especially on offense, but with Bridges gone, both were essential to MSU starting the conference season at 4-1 before hitting a skid.
The rest of the season went as one would expect from a small, inexperienced team with good coaching: with a few exceptions, MSU generally beat the teams they were better than and lost to teams better than them (based on season-end ranking). Their ticket was probably punched with a late-season defeat of Wisconsin, and on Selection Sunday they received a 9-seed and a date with Jim Larranaga’s Miami - though they would have to do it without senior guard Eron Harris, who joined MSU’s orthopedic ward/bench mob after suffering his own season-ending knee injury against Purdue.
Initially, the Miami game had all the hallmarks of every loss over the course of the season - scads of bad turnovers and blown assignments leading to easy shots on defense, but with the added deer-in-headlights aura one only sees at the Big Dance. When the nerves wore off, though, MSU forcefully reversed momentum and turned the game into a laugher in their favor.
Kansas, however, was a different animal. Arguably for the first time all season, Bridges wasn’t obviously the best player on the court, as former MSU recruiting target Josh Jackson matched him play for play. The insurmountable advantage the Jayhawks had, though, was an uncommonly talented and experienced guard tandem in Devonte Graham and Naismith candidate Frank Mason III. Every time MSU closed the gap, one of the two would make the type of play that no one in green knew how to counter. The final score didn’t reflect how close the game was throughout, but there was never really any doubt who the better team was.
Although there won’t be any conference hardware to add to the pile and the tournament run was short, 2016-17 should probably be viewed as generally a positive for MSU. Given the massive roster turnover and youth of the roster, the season probably went about as well as it could have.
Moreover, the future is extremely bright for this program. Given Harris’ injury and Van Dyk’s fade from the playing group, Alvin Ellis III is really the only player from the last several games who will not be back next season (barring transfer) - especially significant in that fact is Bridges opting to pass on the draft despite generally being viewed as a lottery pick. By the end of the year, MSU’s four freshmen - Bridges, Ward, point guard Cassius Winston and wing Josh Langford - were clearly their four best players. Assuming even normal freshman-to-sophomore projection, they will be a handful next year.
Izzo has also continued his renewed surge on the recruiting trail, and as of this writing has two more standout recruits on the way in Xavier Tillman and Jaren Jackson Jr. Gavin Schilling will also return from his injury, and though Ben Carter is apparently a long shot for a 6th year from the NCAA, MSU is also still in on some very big fish on the recruiting trail. Even if they miss on all their remaining targets, next year’s team will have none of the size or depth issues this year’s version struggled through, and should be the premiere team in the conference and a trendy preseason national title pick.