The 2016-17 season will not go down as one of Tom Izzo’s best in East Lansing. It was a year full of ups and downs for the Spartans, as the team struggled to even secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. They did, however, make the big dance and even won a game to reach the second round.
This year will be a different story for Michigan State. The Spartans will enter this upcoming season as one of the clear-cut favorites to win the national championship and will likely be the unanimous choice to win this season’s Big Ten crown. The main reason for this is because Michigan State returns a bulk of its most talented players from a year ago, including rising sophomores Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Josh Langford and Cassius Winston.
However, the Spartans did lose a pair of scoring threats and lockdown defenders from last year’s team. That includes guards Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis. Harris was the Spartans’ third leading scorer last year, while Ellis posted a career-best 6.4 points per game average. Both experienced different levels of success while in East Lansing but each had their moments where they were clutch for the Spartans, making them each listed as the biggest losses for the upcoming season.
When Harris was on, he was arguably one of the best scorers in the Big Ten. However, the issue with him was consistency and, more specifically, his inability to hit open shots from the perimeter in some of the season’s bigger games.
Harris finished his career at Michigan State averaging 9.9 points per game. That’s solid in the Big Ten, but he came to the Spartans with high expectations after transferring from West Virginia — where he averaged 17.2 points per game as a sophomore. So, in a lot of ways, it’s fair to say he never lived up to expectations.
Harris could take over a game when he was feeling it. This past season, he scored 13 or more points in 10 of the 27 games he played in — that included four games of 20 or more points. But he also had seven games where he finished with no more than five points. That simply highlights the inconsistency that was part of his game.
There’s more to basketball than just scoring, and Harris knew that. He came to East Lansing as a terrible defender — just ask Izzo — but left as one of the team’s best lockdown guys. He provided a defensive boost for this young team in 2016-’17 and did the little things that weren’t measured in the stat sheet. So while his offensive game was up-and-down, his defense was always reliable, and that should be noted.
Harris suffered a season-ending injury in February last year, so the team got a glimpse of what life would be without him. Other players were forced to step-up and pick up the lost production, so that’s a positive when you look at how he’ll be replaced this year.
Ellis experienced his best season of his career in 2016-17, with career highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals. As I mentioned before, he averaged 6.4 points per game to go with 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game this past year. It was also the first time Ellis saw a substantial amount of playing time in his career, averaging 19.4 minutes per game which was more than double his previous season-best.
As a senior, Ellis provided strong minutes off the bench for the Spartans. He made eight starts this past season — every game after Harris experienced his season-ending injury — and before that he was used as a spark plug to jumpstart the offense.
Ellis was one of the better three point shooters on the team with a 36.3 shooting percentage from behind the arc. He also was able to explode in a few games to lead Michigan State to key victories — 20 points at Minnesota and 16 against Northwestern are a few examples.
Like Harris, Ellis was also a solid defender for Michigan State. He ranked third on the team in steals, and would regularly be placed on one of the opponent’s top scorer to slow him down. His strong play on the defensive end of the court certainly played a role in his increased minutes in his senior season.
Ellis won’t go down as a Spartan legend by any means, but he provided depth off the bench for Michigan State. He didn’t achieve much until his senior season, and because of that it’s easy to say he won’t be missed off next year’s team. However, it’s not easy replacing a solid defender and someone who can hit clutch shots after spending a lot of time sitting out. Some players on next year’s team — cough, cough Matt McQuaid — will need to fulfill that same role in order for Michigan State to be a well-rounded team.
Replacing Harris and Ellis will be something the Spartans will work through early on next season but it won’t be something this team struggles with. Both players certainly provided value to this team — especially on the defensive end of the floor — but replacing them won’t be anything like what Michigan State went through last year with Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis all departing.
The Spartans’ young guns from last year will need to step up and improve in order to make up for the lost production from Harris and Ellis, but I don’t see that being an issue. And based on the high expectations for this team across the country, I don’t think anyone else worries about that either.