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Michigan State 2016-17 Preview: the Backcourt

How will Sparty replace an historic one-two punch?

Michigan State  v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

In the weeks leading up to the 2016-’17 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its top in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.

Today’s edition of the ‘BTPowerhouse Preview Series’ will focus on the backcourt for Michigan State. A pair of highly-touted freshman and a deep crop of mostly-unproven returning talent attempt to fill some big shoes.

'BTPowerhouse Preview' - Michigan State Backcourt:

  • 2015-’16 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Denzel Valentine (1st Team), Bryn Forbes (2nd Team)
  • Key Departures: Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes
  • Additions: Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston
  • Top Player: Eron Harris

Tom Izzo’s Spartans haven’t boasted a backcourt as brilliant as last year’s in perhaps his entire head coaching career. AP National POY Denzel Valentine and 3-point specialist Bryn Forbes made for a high-flying fulcrum of fun before it all came crashing down in the first round of the tournament.

This season, they’ll attempt to replace their 1,100 points and 216 three’s, not to mention their leadership and experience.

Starting Rotation

A fascinating storyline right out of the gate: just when and how do the talented freshmen get involved. My hunch, given the front court’s uncertainty, is that Coach Izzo will begin the year starting his upperclassmen. At the point, junior Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. should set the tempo. He’s a non-scoring option but a solid defender and crafty passer. His experience playing major minutes behind Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine have prepared Tum Tum to be the steady hand for a team in transition. And while his offensive stats are unkind (that 18.8% from three last year was an ugly sight), he actually improved his offensive rating considerably (92.0 to 102.9) from freshman to sophomore year.

Once upon a time, a whole three seasons ago, Eron Harris put up 17 points a game for the West Virginia Mountaineers. Last year, his first in green and white, Harris struggled to get on the floor more than 20 minutes a game but was sneaky good off the bench, incrementally raising his 3-Point %, rebounds, and assists from his final year in the Big 12. If he can’t blossom into a Forbes-type (limiting fouls and turnovers would be a step), there’s a sharp-shooter or two waiting in the wings.

Bench Rotation

Miles Bridges isn’t the only freshman shouldering high expectations this season. Shooting guard Joshua Langford is a Top 20 prospect (per 247Sports) who can create off the dribble and knock down outside shots. He’s obviously unproven at this level but he’ll be expected to contribute a fortune immediately. Listed at 6’5”, 210, he’s already the biggest guard on the team and may be tasked to guard opposing teams wings.

Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, point guard Cassius Winston, is another highly recruited freshman who will see action immediately. Matt McQuaid knocked down 40% from behind the arc last year and will see more minutes. Sophomore Kyle Ahrens will look to get more time on the floor. And you know Izzo will reward the hard work of senior Alvin Ellis III.


By some considerable distance, the Sparty’s backcourt year is the deepest facet of the team. As many as six players could see 10 minutes of action per game or more and at least two (McQuaid and Harris) will shoot the lights out. They’re going to need to: an injury to transfer forward Ben Carter makes Izzo’s thin lineup of big men even thinner.

Personally, I’d love to see the Hall of Fame coach take a page from the NBA and go small, playing Langford at small forward with Harris and Nairn/Winston. That could make the Spartans nearly un-guardable and prove the pundits correct in their assessment of Michigan State’s chances.