If you’re a Michigan State fan, you’ve gotten used to two things on the basketball court over the last two decades.
Yes, since Izzo took over the men’s basketball program in East Lansing, he’s led the most consistent and most successful program in the Big Ten. The numbers are simply mind boggling: 20 straight NCAA Tournaments, 17 seasons with 20 or more wins, and seven Final Fours.
Simply put, it’s been an absolutely dominant run.
And, of course, heading into this season, that run was expected to continue. While most of last year’s team (that went 29-6) would be heading out the door, Izzo would be welcoming arguably his best recruiting class of all-time. Izzo had always been regarded as a guy who could “win with less,” but, now, he would have some good recruits too.
But that recruiting class wasn’t just good. It was elite. Not only was Michigan State’s class rated No. 3 nationally by 247Sports, but it featured four top 40 prospects, including five-star prospects Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. Unsurprisingly, it was also rated (by a long shot) as the Big Ten’s best recruiting class.
There were some key returners as well. Kyle Ahrens and Matt McQuaid returned after decent freshmen outings, Tum Tum Nairn returned in the backcourt, and seniors Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis were expected to get some real minutes as well. Add in a graduate transfer in Ben Carter upfront and Michigan State looked absolutely loaded.
But fast forward five months and things look much different.
Despite all that talent, all that hype, and all that projected depth, Michigan State found itself heading home after its second game in the tournament. And it wasn’t even surprising, either. The Spartans got smashed by Kansas in a 20-point loss on Sunday to get knocked out in the Round of 32.
So, what the hell happened?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. To start, Michigan State never quite had the depth and talent it had on paper prior to the season. Before the season even began, the team had already lost graduate transfer Ben Carter and returning upperclassmen Gavin Schilling to injury. Considering that both were expected to play upfront, the two injuries suddenly left Izzo and his staff scrambling for frontcourt answers.
On top of that, Michigan State also lost monster freshman Miles Bridges for a few games early in the season and Eron Harris as March was arriving. None of these alone would have been all that damaging, but together?
Yeah, it made things challenging.
But presenting this Michigan State team as one derailed by injury would simply be misleading. The team’s potential and margin for error were certainly limited by the string of injuries, but it’s not like Michigan State was suddenly a team without depth or talent due.
In fact, the Spartans were still loaded. After all, remember that loaded 2016 class? Despite all that talent, Michigan State went 20-15 overall and got kicked to the curb last weekend.
And that class was elite.
Not good. Not great.
To put things in perspective, just compare Michigan State to the rest of the Big Ten and some of the nation’s other great programs. Not only was Michigan State the Big Ten’s most talented team last year, per Verbal Commits, but the Spartans outrecruited college basketball powers in Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, and UCLA this year.
That’s an incredibly impressive achievement for Izzo and his staff, but it also leads me back to the question I posed earlier.
What in the hell happened?
As I said, the injuries hurt. Probably some bad luck and youth as well. But the harsh truth of the matter is that this roster simply didn’t maximize its talent. Bridges was a star and Ward finally got his feet later in the year, but Josh Langford and Cassius Winston were inconsistent and the team’s returning role players never stepped up.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This season wasn’t a disaster. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere close. Michigan State still won 20 games, it won a game in the NCAA Tournament, and it added another year onto Izzo’s incredible postseason streak. Those are all nice achievements that plenty of teams would love to have on their resume.
However, this is Michigan State and it’s a program that was bringing in an elite recruiting class. If you want some perspective, just think about some of the talent on this team. Miles Bridges and Nick Ward are going to the NBA. Cassius Winston will probably be there in a year or two. And there are some solid role players too.
Hell, even if Bridges alone goes to the NBA this offseason (he’s projected as a First Round pick), Michigan State will probably have more NBA Draft picks than a good share of the Big Ten has had over the last few years. And that’s not exaggerating, either.
During Izzo’s incredible tenure in East Lansing, he’s overachieved more often than not. Even two years ago, he took a mediocre team to a Final Four appearance. But this time, it’s hard to feel like this year’s team maximized its potential.
And that’s a feeling that probably won’t go away anytime soon.