In the sports context, the term ‘roller coaster’ is generally used as a synonym for inconsistency, which is almost always viewed as a bad thing. And that’s understandable, because if we can’t be happy, we should at least be able to calibrate our expectations properly and not be surprised all the time, right?
When Michigan State squandered an 11-point halftime lead and lost in overtime to UCLA in the NCAAT to end their season, I was fully on board with that interpretation. How could the same team that had overpowered (then)#6 Duke, #5 Illinois, #4 Ohio State, and #2 Michigan also lose all the games they had over the course of the season? Well, with the security of distance, I’m more amenable to the argument that last year’s team may have overachieved somewhat, but only with the hindsight of knowing what some of those players actually were, rather than what we wanted them to be. Let’s go under the hood and then look forward.
I. 2020-21 Season Recap
A critical position change that utterly flopped. A much-hyped transfer instead schlumping along amongst three rotation players without the athleticism to play in the Big Ten. And a very set-in-his (mostly winning) ways coach who struggled to adjust to both the reality of his roster and the dramatically different offseason imposed by the pandemic.
Add all that together, and you go from a 6-0 start and #4 high-water mark, featuring a win over then-#6 Duke, to getting bombed by bad Northwestern and Minnesota teams before the New Year, sinking all the way to 2-7 in conference at one point, and needing a furious rally, picking off three more top-five teams in the last month of the season, to crawl into the tournament field, where they choked away a halftime lead over eventual Final Four UCLA in the opening round.
All of which is to say last year’s Michigan State team was a land of contrasts. And then, sole unvarnished bright spot SF Aaron Henry decamped for the draft (2nd round to the Sixers), and into the portal with erstwhile PG Mark ‘Rocket’ Watts (Mississippi State), backup PG Foster Loyer (Davidson), and sometimes-starting PF Thomas Kithier (Valparaiso). So, what to make of this year’s roster?
II. The Players
This roster doesn’t have the All-B1G First Team Dude, like a Cassius Winston, Denzel Valentine, or Draymond Green, that it frequently has in recent years. But there’s enough talent here that, if the pieces fit together better than they did last year, Michigan State should look more like their normal selves.
SF Aaron Henry (draft); PG Rocket Watts (transfer); PG Foster Loyer (transfer); PF Thomas Kithier (transfer)
PG Tyson Walker (transfer - Northeastern), SG Max Christie (247 Composite #19 overall), PG Jaden Akins SG/SF Pierre Brooks (247 Composite #60 overall)
I liked MNWildcat’s thing in his Northwestern preview, but I have very little idea of how MSU’s rotation will work out. There’s a plausible argument for any and all of the 11 (grinds teeth) scholarship players getting real burn.
Senior wing Gabe Brown and combo forward Malik Hall have been anointed captains, and as such figure to play substantial roles.
This is encouraging in particular for Brown, who has been a fantastic energy guy, equally capable of nailing a three as throwing down a posterizing dunk, but also prone to long stretches in Izzo’s doghouse for unclear reasons. Similar things could be said for fellow senior Marcus Bingham Jr., a dust mop of a guy who’s shown stretches of astounding defensive brilliance and yet was also exiled to the bench for long stretches, to the fanbase’s tremendous ire. If he has a more complete, patient offensive game, he still has an intriguing ceiling.
Malik Hall has, to this point, mostly been a role player. I would have loved to see him play more of the three last year, as I think he’s got the mobility to stick with bigger wings, but Izzo used him almost exclusively in a tag team with Joey Hauser at the four.
...sigh. Guess we need to address that. Hauser, of course, is the above-mentioned transfer who fell far, far short of high expectations. I want to be as charitable as I possibly can, and will assume that given almost the entire team caught COVID in the offseason, it was probably difficult to get over that and also maintain conditioning. But he was not in the necessary physical shape to compete in this league, and it showed. It was already said that his defense would need to be compensated for occasionally by his offense, but it was so staggeringly bad at times that it was a big surprise Izzo kept running him out there - normally, if you aren’t carrying your water on D, you don’t play for this team. His offense was better, but still included a long shooting slump and way more turnovers than his overall contributions justified. He handled those struggles about as well as he could, and took his mid-season benching gracefully. Hopefully, he returns with a vengeance this year and redeems the hype he had coming into last season.
The other guys in the frontcourt are a couple of physical specimens with, shall we say, a long way to go on offense, though Julius Marble did show marked progress from his freshman campaign. Izzo compared him to Kenny Goins when he was coming in, so hopefully this is the year we get the reliable defense and clutch stroke from three. Sophomore Mady Sissoko was very much an unfinished product last year, not contributing much more than his allotment of fouls, but he’s physically imposing enough to at least be a serviceable rim-runner.
As jumbled as the frontcourt situation is, there are even more possibilities with the wings and guards. Gabe Brown figures to start and play a lot, and Tyson Walker appears to be in line for a major role at the point. Beyond that, how to slot in sophomore combo guard AJ Hoggard and the three freshmen has yet to be determined. There are a lot of guys labeled ‘point guard’ on this team, but Hoggard and Akins both have the size to play off the ball as well. This is Izzo’s most promising class since the Winston/Bridges/Langford/Ward group in ‘16, and there are a lot of backcourt minutes for the youngsters to absorb.
III. Expectations in 2021-22
I actually have a similar feeling as I did about the football team coming into this year: given the talent they have and the way they performed last year, they almost can’t help but be better. How much better, though, is entirely up in the air. They would have to hit their ceiling pretty quickly and maintain it to jostle with Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State, and Illinois atop the league this season.
More likely, they will progress as an Izzo team usually does: struggle through a brutally difficult nonconference, find something of a stride early in the conference, hit a nasty skid late January/early February, and then ideally sort things out and get to their best ball down the stretch.
At a minimum, this should be a tournament team, but that’s an every-year expectation in East Lansing. Cracking the top four in what should be another rugged Big Ten feels like a stretch, but hopefully they’ll find themselves in that 5th/6th place neighborhood.
Hmmm, I wonder if, after the struggles last season, Izzo has altered his approach to setting up the hardest possible noncon and has eased up- ope nope first game is Kansas. There’s an early-season tilt at Butler, Louisville at home (sidebar: remember how Louisville’s head coach got blackmailed, but didn’t follow school policy for reporting it and is therefore suspended for the first six games of the season? Friggin wild, man). The noncon highlight is a stacked Battle 4 Atlantis field, involving a first-round matchup with Loyola Chicago and a field featuring Auburn, UConn, Arizona State, Syracuse, VCU, let’s see anyone else...oh, defending national champions Baylor. So that’s fun.
The conference schedule has singles with Iowa, Ohio State, Rutgers (those three are road-only), Indiana, Nebraska, and Purdue (home only). Overall, that’s a favorable draw; avoiding trips to Mackey and the Hall of Calls, plus the single matchup with Ohio State, is probably about as good as it gets. Although...I do think Iowa’s going to fall off a cliff this year.
Remember how I mentioned MSU always hits a bad skid mid-conference slate? Well, from January 21-February 1, they go: @Wisc, @Illinois, Michigan, @Maryland. Yikes. But, as always, they get a friendly draw in the First Two: @Minnesota, Penn State. Lose either of those and Houston, we have a problem.
Michigan State’s B1G finish:
This poll is closed
Second or third
Fourth, fifth, sixth or so
Seventh or worse