The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.
In the summer of 1999, Artisan Entertainment released The Ninth Gate. It was a mystery thriller starring Johnny Depp and Lena Olin based around Depp’s search for a rare, ancient book that contained secrets on summoning demons. It wasn’t quite a horr movie, but it was pretty close.
While the movie was pretty entertaining for its duration, there’s one moment in The Ninth Gate that continues to live in infamy: The horrible ending.. Instead of revealing what happens once Depp finally discovers the book he’s been searching for the entire movie, the screen fades into light and rolls to the credits. It was an unsatisfying ending that overrides much of the enjoyment of the film.
This compares pretty well to Michigan State’s last season.
Even though the Spartans put together an impressive 29-6 record, raced out to a 13-0 start, won the Big Ten Tournament, and headed into the NCAA Tournament on a 13-1 run, last year’s team will be remembered solely for its loss to Middle Tennessee in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. It was a crushing blow that instantly erased everything the team had accomplished from November through early March.
There’s no debating that the loss to Middle Tennessee will be remembered for years to come, but it hardly paints a fair picture of the 2015-’16 Spartans. Michigan State was an electric team and was led by a group of seniors that shouldn’t be soon forgotten. Unfortunately, fans probably won’t remember it.
But the other thing to remember about last year’s Spartan team was one that took years to build. The team was stacked with the kind of upperclassmen and depth most teams don’t see in a decade.
While that was great for last season’s team, it leaves a major challenge for Tom Izzo this year. There’s going to be immense pressure to find contributors from Michigan State’s youth and it comes with the backdrop of a rough NCAA Tournament outing.
The pressure will be on and here’s a look at what to expect this year.
1. 2015-’16 Season Performance
- Record: 29-6 (13-5)
- KenPom Team Rating: #5
- RPI Rating: #12
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (Round of 64)
The Spartans came into the 2015-16 season with some pretty high expectations, not exactly a surprise considering the fact that the previous team had made it to the Final Four. With Denzel Valentine returning for one more season and an absolutely loaded roster, the Spartans didn't disappoint early as they ran through their non-conference slate on their way to a #1 ranking throughout December. It wasn't until their last game of 2015 that they finally lost, dropping a road game to Iowa at the end of December.
The Spartans did falter a bit in conference play, but a lot of that was bad luck as Michigan State struggled to win close games. Excluding two double digit losses to Iowa, the remaining three Big Ten losses came by a combined three points. Seriously. 11 of their 13 conference wins came by double digits, with the two games missing that mark coming in at eight and nine points in wins against Minnesota and Maryland.
Besides a one point loss in overtime at Purdue, the Spartans finished conference play impressively on a 10-1 run and continued their streak throughout the Big Ten Tournament, edging out Purdue in the title game. With the Spartans closing out the season on a 13-1 dismantling of the Big Ten and looking like the team everyone expected, the Spartans picked up a 2 seed and were expected to be posed for a deep tournament run once again.
Then Middle Tennessee happened.
In a highly unexpected twist, the 15 seed Middle Tennessee found a way to answer every run Michigan State made and held off the Spartans, winning the first round game 90-81. It was a disappointing finish for AP Player of the Year and consensus first-team All-American Denzel Valentine, who was picturing a potential a title run to finish out his career.
2. Offseason Exits
Michigan State is going to look decisively different this season as the Spartans are losing five of their top six scorers, while their seventh leading scorer last year (Gavin Schilling) is dealing with a knee injury and the ninth top scorer (Javon Bess) has also departed.
The big hit here is Denzel Valentine. The player of the year last season, Valentine was an unstoppable force that could do anything and everything for his team. Averaging 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game, Valentine was the team's leading scorer, was in all reality the team's most effective point and was only edged in rebounds by big man Matt Costello. Speaking of Costello, the team will miss out on his presence inside, with the 6'9" forward averaging 10.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in the frontcourt.
Bryn Forbes, a volume shooting three point specialist that hit over 48% of his 6.7 three point attempts per game, will be another key loss. While the Spartans have weapons in the backcourt, it's a rare treat to find a three point shooter that good. Mix in Valentine and the duo hit 46.4% of their 14.2 three point attempts per game.
Also departing is Deyonta Davis, a one-and-done that had a much criticized departure for the NBA, fueled even more by a free fall on draft night (and only made up by his contract, which was pretty favorable for Davis considering the circumstances). Davis was a bit underwhelming as a freshman, never consistently being the game changer he was expected to be, but he showed flashes of potential and would have been a key weapon for the Spartans this season. Even more so with Schilling and Carter sidelined indefinitely and Marvin Clark and Javon Bess transferring out of the program.
3. New Additions
Injury issues and a serious lack of size will dominate the headlines for the Spartans until the season tips off, but that shouldn't overshadow a highly impressive 2016 recruiting class.
Hands down one of the best recruiting classes this year, Tom Izzo managed to land two consensus five-star recruits in Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. As for the other two guys, both point guard Cassius Winston and center Nick Ward were consensus four star recruits and considered to also be two of the top recruits in this class. Per Rivals, the four recruits rank in as the 10th, 20th, 29th and 41st best recruits from the 2016 class.
The star of the class is Miles Bridges, a 6'7" forward that has shown the ability to score inside, shoot from the perimeter, clean up on the glass and is even a proficient passer. His potential and what he has shown so far have many people viewing Bridges as a potential one-and-done, so his time might not be long in East Lansing. Either way, his explosiveness and versatility will be a huge asset, especially with Valentine now off in the NBA. Losing a guy that could literally do everything is a huge blow, but adding a freshman that shows some similarities is always a good thing.
It'll be interesting to see how Izzo works Cassius Winston and Nick Ward into the rotation. Winston is a flashy point guard that is another big name recruit, but if Lourawls Nairn is healthy he should have the initial crack at the starting spot. Nairn does leave the door open for Winston, though, especially considering the liability he's been on offense when it comes to his inability to shoot the ball.
As for Ward, the Spartans will likely try to ease him into the lineup and run with a small ball lineup, but off-season injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter leave Ward as the team's tallest player and the only true center on the roster. That means Ward, who is the lowest ranked recruit from the Spartans 2016 class, could be one of the most important players down the stretch when the Spartans square off against taller opponents.
Rounding out the bunch is 6'5" wing Joshua Langford. Langford, who is finally healthy after being banged up this off-season, has shown the ability to score inside while also bringing a solid mid-range jumper to the table. Izzo has boasted about his defensive versatility, claiming the guard can handle smaller point guards, as well as taller wings/forwards. If Langford can continue to shoot the ball from outside like he did in high school, there's a ton of potential for Langford to become a key player in the Spartans rotation soon enough.
4. Team Strengths
With so much transition on Michigan State’s roster heading into this season, it’s going to be rather difficult to pin down strengths and weaknesses for the Spartans this season. However, the team should still be incredibly athletic and should have a wing group that can do some major damage.
Last year’s Michigan State team was loaded with senior players like Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, and Denzel Valentine, but one area where it did lack was elite athleticism. Don’t get me wrong, those two and others were more than athletic enough to play and compete in the Big Ten, but it’s not like Michigan State was going to beat teams like Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina based on pure athleticism.
However, that could change this year with the the addition of the team’s 2016 recruiting class. Miles Bridges could be one of the 10 most athletic players in the country and Josh Langford and Nick Ward also have their own skillsets to add to the roster. Maybe this doesn’t improve Michigan State’s overall record, but it could yield major results in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State also figures to have one of the best wing groups in the country. Not only will Bridges and Langford both compete for starting roles as freshmen, but Michigan State also returns Alvin Ellis, Eron Harris, and Matt McQuaid. That’s a plethora of options across the two, three, and four spots that could contribute. Plus, several of those options look like legitimate All-Big Ten contenders entering the season.
5. Team Red Flags
Michigan State's experience last season led to a well rounded team that more or less had very few weaknesses. The same can't be said for the 2016-17 Spartans, though the team is still in pretty good shape even with the mass departures from last season. The reality is losing do-it-all Denzel Valentine is a huge blow, as well as Valentine and Bryn Forbes three point shooting. Matt Costello's departure, mixed with injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, leave the team thin in the frontcourt and now the pressure will be on a 2016 recruiting class to hit the ground running.
That inexperience is probably the biggest weakness for the Spartans, even with the team's lack of size inside. Miles Bridges looks to be the real deal and is likely about to embark on an explosive season, but it'll be interesting to see how quickly Josh Langford and Cassius Winston can become key players in the rotation. The same can be said about Nick Ward, who went from the backburner to one of the key guys heading forward as he's now the only true center that is healthy on the roster.
This inexperience is problematic because Michigan State scheduled an extremely rough November. The Spartans open against Arizona and Kentucky, might face Louisville and Baylor in the Bahamas, and then travel to Duke for the ACC / Big Ten Challenge. That's going to be a tough task for four true freshmen and plenty of new starters who will need to hit the ground running. Izzo's December and early January slate is actually pretty easy, so if the Spartans can at least perform admirably in the first month of the season they should be fine come mid-January when the schedule picks back up.
Other areas to keep an eye on is the point guard and center positions. There'll be eyes on Winston and I'm sure plenty of Sparty fans want him to break into the starting rotation as quickly as possible. While Lourawls Nairn, who should be the opening day starter, has plenty of experience over his first two seasons, Nairn is a massive offensive liability and his inability to shoot the ball could see him lose his starting spot at some point this season.
As for center, with Schilling out for at least the first two months of the season, can Nick Ward be a viable center? If not will Michigan State's small-ball lineup, with guys like Kenny Goins playing the five, be capable of holding their own when facing teams with decisive height advantages? The frontcourt should be capable of saving face on most nights, but it's enough of an issue that it could prove detrimental against more talented and deeper opponents.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, Michigan State was clearly going to be Denzel Valentine’s team. There was certainly some talent surrounding him, but he was going to be the man. That obviously proved true as he was the Big Ten Player of the Year last season and was listed on many All-American lists.
But with four of five starters heading elsewhere this offseason, there are going to be some serious questions about Michigan State’s lineup and which players could compete to be the team’s best player. The most likely options will be Miles Bridges, Josh Langford, and Eron Harris, but two of those players are freshman and Harris is coming off a year of mixed success. Although all three have potential, nobody is sure as to how well they’ll perform this year.
Along with those three, Michigan State also has a few other players who could factor into this discussion if they have good years. Tum Tum Nairn is coming off a respectable 2015-’16 campaign, Cassius Winston comes to campus with a good deal or hype, and Ben Carter comes in with plenty of experience. However, Nairn and Winston will probably be a step behind the big three contributors and Carter is dealing with injury.
Two other potential wildcards could be Kenny Goins and Nick Ward. While neither is projected to be stars this season, it’s worth mentioning these two because both should get some major playing time upfront this season. Ward is more likely to have a breakout season, but Goins has been decent (117.2 offensive rating) in limited minutes.
7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/27 - Northwood university (Ex.)
- 11/2 Saginaw Valley State (Ex.)
- 11/11 - Arizona (Honolulu, HI)
- 11/15 - Kentucky (New York, NY)
- 11/18 - Mississippi Valley State
- 11/20 - Florida Gulf Coast
- 11/23 - St. John’s (Atlantis, Bahamas)
- 11/24 - Baylor/VCU (Atlantis, Bahamas)
- 11/25 - Louisville/LSU/ODU/Wichita State (Atlantis, Bahamas)
- 11/29 - at Duke
- 12/3 - Oral Roberts
- 12/6 - Youngstown State
- 12/10 - Tennessee tech
- 12/18 - Northeastern
- 12/21 - Oakland
- 12/27 - at Minnesota
- 12/30 - Northwestern
- 1/4 - Rutgers
- 1/7 - Penn State (Philadelphia, PA)
- 1/11 - Minnesota
- 1/15 - at Ohio State
- 1/21 - at Indiana
- 1/24 - Purdue
- 1/29 - Michigan
- 2/2 - at Nebraska
- 2/7 - at Michigan
- 2/11 - Iowa
- 2/14 - Ohio State
- 2/18 - at Purdue
- 2/23 - Nebraska
- 2/(25/26) - Wisconsin
- 3/1 - at Illinois
- 3/5 - at Maryland
Michigan State has typically scheduled a difficult non-conference schedule and that once again holds true in 2016-17. Of course their loaded start to the beginning of the season will make things very interesting as the Spartans are dealing with a ton of roster turnover and injury issues, forcing Izzo to rely on a roster that will have utilize a strong 2016 recruiting class.
Things start off right at the beginning of the season when the Spartans will square off against Arizona out west in Honolulu in the Armed Forces Classic. Following up a difficult game against a NCAA Tournament team? Well how about a game in New York against Kentucky. A Week later the Spartans will be in the Bahamas where they could end up drawing Louisville, Baylor and St. John's depending on how things pan out. And of course rounding the month of November four days later is a road game against Duke in the ACC / Big Ten Challenge. In a matter of weeks Michigan State could end up playing Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, Louisville and Duke. Ouch.
Luckily for the Spartans, a loaded November gives way for an extremely weak December. Finishing out the non-conference slate is five mid-majors that will all travel to East Lansing. Easing into conference play, the Spartans will play their first five conference games against Minnesota (twice), Northwestern, Rutgers and Penn State. So even if Michigan State has a rough November, the team then has a stretch of over a month where they should be considerable favorites every night.
Things do eventually ramp up in January when the schedules starts to pick up. The middle of the month finally sees the Spartans set for a challenge, with a four game stretch against Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan. However, the rest of the way goes back and forth between a few challenging games and then plenty of winnable affairs.
So while the Spartans face a rough start to the season, their conference schedule is pretty bearable all things considered. While they do have to face Michigan and Purdue twice, they'll only face off against other top Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Indiana, Maryland) once. With those three teams likely to all be top five teams alongside the Spartans, that means the double play against Purdue could be two of the more important games for Izzo's program. With Michigan State facing Wisconsin and Maryland in two of their final three games, though, Michigan State could control their own fate this winter.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: “Tum Tum” Nairn (Jr.) - 80%
- SG: Matt McQuaid (So.) - 70%
- SF: Eron Harris (Rs. Sr.) - 85%
- PF: Miles Bridges (Fr.) - 95%
- C: Kenny Goins (Rs. So.) - 70%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Michigan State’s backcourt figures to be pretty deep this season. With Matt McQuaid and Tum Tum Nairn returning and the additions of Josh Langford and Cassius Winston, there should be more than enough options for Tom Izzo and his staff. Expect the experienced players in McQuaid and Nairn to take the roles early, but to see their minutes drop as Langford and Winston improve.
As mentioned earlier, Michigan State should be absolutely loaded on the wing. Not only does elite freshman Miles Bridges join the team here, but the Spartans also have a proven return in Eron Harris and decent depth options in Kyle Ahrens and Alvin Ellis. Plus, with players like Langford and McQuaid that can grab backup minutes if necessary, it’s hard to imagine Izzo having trouble finding two quality starters here.
Unfortunately, the frontcourt could be a different story.
With the offseason injuries to Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling, what looked like a pretty deep position group for the Spartans now looks incredibly thin. Kenny Goins and Nick Ward figure to be decent options, but neither is prepared to play major minutes at the five and any other injury could be devastating.
The one great thing about Michigan State’s starting lineup is that it’s filled with incredibly diverse players capable of playing at multiple spots. That’s going to give Izzo impressive flexibility when choosing his lineup. That might not seem all that important now, but it could be a huge factor when Michigan State needs a matchup in a major Big Ten game or the NCAA Tournament.
9. Team Perspective From Adam Biggers of FanRag Sports
"Tom Izzo has all the ingredients for something; however, he might be using an uncommon recipe during the 2016-17 season.
For once in a blue moon, he doesn't have a signature senior -- or one who could develop into such a player. MSU's only four-year schollie guys, Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis have had up-and-down careers in East Lansing. Not much was expected from either one this season, really. Maybe a leap for Schilling, who could miss considerable time due to a knee injury. But that's it.
Youth will be the key for Izzo, who has one of his best freshman classes to date. Expect Miles Bridges, a former 5-star forward, to ignite the offense with redshirt junior Eron Harris -- who has improved defensively but remains as one of Izzo's top offensive weapons
With Schilling's injury, Nick Ward, another highly regarded freshman, will be in position to rapidly grow or wilt under pressure. That's entirely up to him -- but Izzo has high hopes for Ward, who has lost 20-some pounds and enters camp in great shape. He might be the most overlooked player of the 2016 class. At 6-8 and roughly 250ish, he could quickly become a large part of Michigan State's game plan this season.
Michigan State's youth will have to mature, but junior Tum-Tum Nairn, a point guard, will help lead the way -- especially for Cassius Winston, a 4-star recruit who'll see plenty of minutes this year.
Matt McQuaid, a sophomore, and Kyle Ahrens, who'll double as a guard and forward, should give Izzo some wiggle room. However, Ahrens still lives in the shadow of a severe leg injury suffered in high school -- and he's had tweaks at MSU -- and McQuaid is coming off what was described as a core/back injury. During the summer, Izzo said McQuaid had also injured his pelvis.
Fully expect the Spartans to play a lot of small-ball this year. Fully expect them to compete for a Big Ten title. Izzo has the players to do something. How much? That'll be determined by how quickly the freshmen grow." - Adam Biggers.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Since Tom Izzo took over as head coach in East Lansing, the program has been an absolute machine. Despite roster and staff turnover, NBA departures, and significant adversity, Izzo continues to find ways to keep his team competitive in the Big Ten and beyond. He will look to keep that tradition going this season despite seeing an an incredible amount of attrition from Michigan State’s roster this offseason.
The backcourt and the wing groups should have more than enough power to keep Michigan State relevant this season, but with the injuries and the uncertainty in the frontcourt, there’s no telling on how things will go. Izzo is going to have to get his young big men in the position to contribute early, which is no easy task.
But even with those frontcourt concerns, this is still a deep and talented team. Although overcoming youth will be a concern all season, it’s hard to panic too much considering Michigan State’s substantial incoming talent and Tom Izzo’s history as a head coach. Things will work out this year, the question will just be how quickly.
Fans are going to enter this season with real frustration after how last season finished, but given how Izzo has performed with this much talent in years past, expect the Spartans to be making some noise in March.