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Michigan State 2017-18 Preview: Spartans feature Big Ten’s deepest frontcourt

What was the Spartans’ biggest weakness last year will now be a huge strength in 2017-18.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In the weeks leading up to the 2017-’18 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 frontcourt of Michigan State. With the Spartans welcoming back a pair of injured bigs and plenty of new faces joining the mix, Michigan State’s front court will be arguably the best in the Big Ten this year.

‘BTPowerhouse Preview’ - Michigan State Frontcourt:

  • 2016-’17 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Nick Ward (Honorable Mention)
  • Departures: None
  • Additions: Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman
  • Top Player: Nick Ward

The backcourt is solid, the wings feature possibly the league’s best player, but it’s the frontcourt that could truly dominate for Michigan State this year. After a year where the Spartans struggled to scrape together a few bigs to regularly play, Michigan State will enter the 2017 season with arguably head coach Tom Izzo’s deepest frontcourt of his career.

On paper Michigan State will have six different bigs that can pick up minutes this season. That includes Nick Ward, Jaren Jackson Jr., Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins. All of them have started games in their careers, and the two freshman enter the mix as two highly-touted recruits. It should be fun watching Izzo juggle this much talent up front as it could take until March till we have a true starting rotation set in place.

Starting Rotation

During Big Ten Media Days last week Izzo said his starting five could change, but for now it’s looking like Ward and Jackson will get the first crack at the starting lineup. That’s how I personally saw it going all offseason and if both live up to the hype they should remain starters throughout the entire year.

Ward returns for his sophomore year after an impressive freshman campaign. He was second on the team in scoring and rebounds with 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He continued to improve throughout the season, making me wonder how much better he can even be this year. He still needs to get better at avoiding foul trouble so he can stay on the floor longer — he averaged only 19.8 minutes per game last year — and needs to continue to improve his free throw percentage. But he has the size and talent to be an All-Big Ten player this year.

Joining Ward in the frontcourt starting rotation is Jackson, who is considered one of Izzo’s best recruits of all-time. Jackson has size at 6-foot-11, and as a five-star recruit he comes into East Lansing with plenty of hype. With his size he’ll be able to hold his own in the paint and he has proven in high school that he can hit shots from outside as well, creating the perfect stretch forward. The fact that he’s expected to start over experienced seniors should say enough about his ability on the floor.

Bench Rotation

The bench rotation includes four guys that could start at most Big Ten schools. Schilling, Carter, Tillman and Goins will make up the core bench rotation for Michigan State this year, with three of the four having starting experience and the other being a four-star recruit.

Schilling and Carter will probably be the first two off the bench to start the season. Both are coming off season-ending knee injuries that occurred before last season began, but appear to be back to full strength. The two seniors have combined for 50 career starts so they each have previous experience. However, neither have been necessarily stat stuffers in their careers — Carter has averaged 4.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 84 career games and Schilling has averaged 3.4 points and 2.8 rebounds in 100 career games. So don’t expect them to be double-double monsters, but they’ll certainly add size and depth off the bench.

Goins and Tillman are also solid options off the bench for the front court who are not being talked about as much. Goins — who is a former walk-on — has similar career stats to Schilling and also has started some games with 14 starts last year. According to Rivals, Tillman was the 86th best recruit in the 2017 class so he is obviously talented as well, but is getting overshadowed by fellow incoming freshman Jackson. Keep an eye-on these two, I wouldn’t be shocked if both end up seeing more and more minutes throughout the year.

It should also be noted that all of these guys are 6-foot-7 or taller. So size off the bench won’t be an issue for the Spartans this year.

Overall

The frontcourt is loaded. Plain and simple. Even Izzo has acknowledged that this group looks completely different from last year when they lacked depth up front.

“We have some size now,” Izzo said during Big Ten Media Days last week. “The addition of a 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-11 guy in Xavier Tillman and Jaren Jackson has made a different kind of practice. Last year, Nick Ward could go against a 6-foot-5 walk-on and score whenever he wanted. This year it's been a little bit different. That's been good.”

There are realistically six guys in the frontcourt that could contribute this year. That is obviously a good thing, but it’ll be interesting to see how those minutes are spread out and who emerges as the main guys. There are some injury concerns with Schilling, Carter and Goins all missing time in the past so that’ll also be a factor to keep an eye on. If they all stay healthy, however, this will be one of the deepest frontcourts in country.