Ed. note: all this comes in the ever-present miasma of COVID. The Ivy League’s declaration of no fall sports does in fact include basketball through December. Presumably some other smaller conferences, unable to rally the resources for robust testing and tracing, could follow suit, though no one else has clarified just yet that postponing football will necessarily affect basketball. For now, let’s pretend the season will occur more or less as planned, even as that feels more delusional with each passing day
Of course MSU week fell the week before the modified NBA draft deadline (August 3rd). Of course it did.
Because now, instead of a nice, pithy breakdown of what the basketball team will definitely be, there are still four possible iterations, thanks to the lengthy NBA Draft considerations of rising senior big Xavier Tillman and rising junior wing Aaron Henry (as an aside, the “rising” term has always grated for some reason, it sounds so pompous, but if that one word really makes clear what a guy’s class status is, so be it). Both could return, both could stay in the draft, or they could split.
Regardless of their decisions, the point guard situation doesn’t figure to change much. The reasonable conclusion is rising sophomore Rocket Watts will take the large majority of those minutes, spelled occasionally by junior Foster Loyer or incoming freshman A.J. Hoggard. Beyond that, though, Henry and Tillman will have big impacts on who plays and how much.
If They Both Return:
MSU should be right at the top of the conference standings again, even without Cassius Winston. Henry and Tillman would both be surefire starters, and Tillman would pair with now-eligible Marquette transfer Joey Hauser to form one of the more potent, experienced frontcourt combos in the country. Henry would be the top option in a wing group including classmate Gabe Brown, returning 28th year senior Josh Langford, and Hoggard, who presumably would be worked in slowly depending on how much Langford can play.
If Only Tillman Returns:
MSU would miss Henry’s strong perimeter defense and shot-making, but between Watts, Hauser, and hopefully Langford, there would be enough capable offensive options to have at least two on the floor at a time. The wing depth would stretched, and big minutes would be needed from Hoggard right away. But even without Henry’s strong perimeter defense, Tillman’s presence and defensive playcalling would probably keep MSU’s defense excellent.
The biggest knocks on his game translating to the pros are offensive - he’s a tentative three-point shooter (27%, but the form generally doesn’t look bad), and though he’s a pretty good finisher, he does struggle against longer, more athletic defenders (like, you know, every single post player in the NBA would be). One assumes he and the coaches would try to address those issues, but even if Henry is gone, there will be a lot of guys in need of shots. In fact, a Tillman return probably means somebody in the frontcourt takes a redshirt.
The main playing time beneficiary of an Aaron Henry departure is likely A.J. Hoggard.
If Only Henry Returns:
Figuring out the pecking order for shots would be a fun problem for Tom Izzo to solve, as Henry would presumably return intent on proving himself capable of being a #1 option. Problem is, Rocket Watts needs the ball in his hands, Joey Hauser has to be itching to shoot it after sitting a year, and guys like Langford, Brown, and sophomore Malik Hall will likely deserve roles, too. Still: not the worst problem to have.
This would be one of the more perimeter-oriented MSU teams of late, as, beyond Hauser, MSU’s frontcourt would be guys better suited as role players. Hall showed slashing ability but was a foul magnet, Marcus Bingham Jr. still didn’t have the strength to consistently bang with other bigs, Thomas Kithier was a decent garbage man but had some defensive issues with more athletic opponents, and Julius Marble barely played. Freshman Mady Sissoko, a top-40 national recruit, has the body to compete immediately, but probably needs some offensive polish. A small-ball lineup with Hauser at the 5 and Henry/Brown at 3 and 4 would be intriguing, but Izzo would likely be repulsed by the rebounding disadvantages.
Knowing that, the main playing time beneficiary of a Xavier Tillman departure is likely Malik Hall or Mady Sissoko - Tillman played at both the 4 and 5 last year.
If Both Of Them Stay Gone:
Sorting out the rotation certainly gets a lot easier. Offensively, the team would run through Watts and Hauser, though Langford is still a wild card there. MSU would need good health in the backcourt, as an injury to any of Watts, Langford or Brown would mean substantial playing time for either Loyer (a sharpshooter, but a defensive liability) or Hoggard.
The frontcourt would still have plenty of bodies with Hauser, Hall, Kithier, Bingham Jr., Marble, and Sissoko, but they’d need one of the non-Hauser guys to be ready for a big role. Hall showed the most of that group last year, and Sissoko has the pedigree to have an impact as a freshman.
My speculative guess is that both of them return. Quick research into draft projections seem to suggest it’s a long shot that Henry is drafted if he stays out this year. Tillman shows up on a lot more draft boards, but generally in the back half of the first round or into the second round, and he also has more specific things he can work on, whereas it feels as though Henry’s biggest problem now is just that he hasn’t been a collegiate top option yet.
Of course, I must close as I began: COVID warps everything. For example, maybe the risk of going undrafted isn’t as big of an issue to one or both of these guys if the prospect of playing internationally is appealing. BUT WAIT - being Americans, there’s currently about a dozen countries in the world that won’t turn you away as a potential plague vector. Presumably not being able to play in Europe changes the calculus on trying to play in Europe. So many things remain up in the air. Fortunately, though, MSU fans need only wait until Monday at the latest to have their answers on Henry and Tillman.