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2018-’19 Michigan State Spartans Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Michigan State Spartans and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2018-’19 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Michigan State Spartans vs Syracuse Orange Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2018-’19 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.

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Over the last few decades, TV has evolved and grown in ways that people in the 1950s and 1960s probably couldn’t have imagined. Production and visual effects have steadily improved and the selection is probably greater than it’s ever been. No matter your niche, you can find something that will interest you.

There have also been a plethora of great shows since the turn of the century, including one that has largely stood the test of time is Dexter. The show is premised around a serial killer that carries out his heinous acts through a “moral” code. More simply put, he targets evildoers for which to carry out his acts. The show tackles the gray area between good and evil and hooked viewers for years. Many still consider the show to be Showtime’s best production, relying on a great mixture of writing and acting.

However, while the show is still great, the last few seasons and the show’s finale were immensely underwhelming. In fact, Dexter arguably has one of the worst series finales in television history. It’s roughly an hour of television that seeks to destroy everything the show created. It was basically the equivalent of having a great steak and following it with an incredibly burnt piece of cake.

The letdown of letdowns.

Unfortunately, that was the tale of the 2017-’18 season for the Spartans.

Heading into last year, Michigan State was the league feature and most figured that the team would go on to accomplish great things in March. The Spartans were stacked with elite NBA talent and had two potential superstars in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson. It was arguably Tom Izzo’s most talented team since he arrived in East Lansing and, as such, fans were expecting the Spartans to accomplish some big things.

And early on, they were right. Outside of a minor slip against Duke in the opening weekend of the season, Michigan State raced out to a 15-1 start and a 3-0 record in Big Ten play with many of its wins coming by impressive margins. In fact, the team’s 15th win came in a 91-61 beat down of what was presumed to be a pretty good Maryland squad.

However, Michigan State followed that up by stubbing its toe in two of the next three games. The team lost to Ohio State on the road and then to arch-rival Michigan at home. By any measure, it was a pretty rough start to January.

But the Spartans did get things back together afterward. The team won 12 straight heading into the postseason and locked up the Big Ten regular season title. Michigan State also followed that up by beating a tricky Wisconsin squad in the team’s opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. At that point, Michigan State was 29-3 overall.

Once again, though, Michigan State stumbled after a fantastic run. The team lost by double-digits to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament and then got knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Syracuse in the Round of 32. The team’s final record was 30-5, but it finished with just three wins (!!!) against top 30 teams on KenPom. A pretty incredible statistic when one considers that Michigan State won the regular season Big Ten title.

That was the story of Michigan State’s last season. A group destined for greatness that couldn’t finish things off when they mattered most. It’s something that will likely haunt Izzo and Spartan fans for years to come. What could have been?

Michigan State will now try to turn the page on that frustrating finish and move forward heading into this season. The good news is that there’s still plenty of talent remaining. Players like Bridges and Jackson are gone, but there’s more than enough for Izzo and his staff to do some major damage this year.

So, what will happen? Let’s take a look at this year’s Spartan team.

1. 2017-’18 Season Performance

  • Record: 30-5 (16-2)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #6
  • RPI Rating: #13
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (Round of 32)

It’s easy to go back and label last year’s Michigan State team as a disappointment. After all, it’s uncommon to see a team post 30 wins, finish sixth nationally on KenPom, and fail to advance past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of your perspective, there is some truth to the underachieving narratives.

All told though and when analyzed in-depth, Michigan State’s profile was pretty bizarre last season. The Spartans were certainly a good team, and maybe even great, but the lack of marquee opportunities on the schedule leaves a lot of room for speculation.

For instance, take a look at the marquee teams that Michigan State faced last season. The Spartans played the following top 40 teams on KenPom:

  • No. 3 - Duke - (neutral);
  • No. 5 - Purdue - (home);
  • No. 7 - Michigan – (home; neutral);
  • No. 8 - North Carolina - (neutral);
  • No. 16 – Ohio State – (away);
  • No. 19 - Penn State - (home);
  • No. 35 - Notre Dame – (home); and
  • No. 39 – Maryland - (home; away)

Let me begin by reminding people that the list above is for the entire season. That includes the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Just 10 of the team’s 35 games came against top 40 opponents last season and three of those were against Notre Dame and Maryland, who were well outside the top 30. It’s also worth noting that only 2 of these 10 games came on the road. A pretty wild development.

All told, Michigan State went 6-4 in the 10 games described above and four wins came against the bottom three teams on that list. The only legitimate marquee wins that Michigan State had over the course of the entire season were against North Carolina and Purdue and neither came on the road. Not exactly a great resume for a team with 30 wins.

To be fair, Michigan State could only play the games that were on the schedule. It’s not Michigan State’s fault that teams like DePaul and UConn dropped off in non-conference play or that the Big Ten gave the Spartans a favorable Big Ten slate where the team got to avoid the toughest road venues. You can only play the games on the schedule.

But because of the lack of marquee wins, it’s hard to argue that Michigan State was a great team last season. Can a team be great if it only had two marquee wins and had a losing record against the best teams it faced? It just seems like a hard sell.

Overall, what we have is a really good team that benefited from a weak schedule and some breaks in Big Ten play. If the Spartans had faced a tougher slate, the team probably doesn’t go 30-5 and likely doesn’t win the Big Ten regular season title. It’s likely why that gaudy record felt relatively hollow after the season ended.

2. Offseason Exits

With so much NBA talent on the roster, it’s hardly a surprise that Michigan State got hit pretty hard with offseason departures this year. The team will be losing five contributors from last year’s team. These players are Miles Bridges, Ben Carter, Jaren Jackson, Tum Tum Nairn, and Gavin Schilling.

Undoubtedly, the biggest departure will be Bridges. He led the team in minutes and points last season and finished within the top three in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks as well. He stood out with 17.1 points per game and came up big in some of the team’s biggest games, including 20 points in a win over Purdue. He’s the type of player that Izzo won’t simply be able to replace with a few new recruits.

Along with Bridges, Michigan State is also losing a starter in Jackson and a major bench contributor in Schilling. In a lot of ways, Jackson’s loss will be like Bridge’s departure. He was a defensive monster that simply can’t be replaced overnight. Jackson was fourth nationally in defensive block rate and one of the Big Ten’s best defenders.

Schilling only averaged 9.6 minutes a game, but often would see 20 minutes or more. And while his contributions are replaceable, he did play quite a bit. Carter and Tum Tum fall into the same camp as well. Tum Tum played in 41.7 percent of the team’s minutes, but was a relatively inconsistent player and saw time behind Winston.

This leaves Michigan State with a major challenge. Izzo and his staff have to find a way to replace two of the program’s most talented players (Bridges, Jackson) in recent memory and three bench options, including two in the frontcourt and one at the point guard position. That’s not going to be an easy task.

3. New Additions

This season, the Michigan State Spartans will be adding five new recruits in Marcus Bingham, Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry, Thomas Kither, and Foster Loyer. According to 247Sports, Bingham, Brown, and Loyer are four-star prospects and Henry and Kithier are three-stars. Loyer is listed as a point guard, Brown and Henry as small forwards, and Bingham and Kithier as power forwards.

The two recruits who have gotten the most attention out of this group are Bingham and Loyer. While neither projects as an “instant impact” type of player, both put up solid numbers in high school and were two of the better prospects in the state of Michigan. Loyer’s numbers were particularly impressive and he finished as one of the more decorated players in recent Michigan high school history. However, Bingham has the higher ceiling.

Michigan State’s final three additions largely fall into the “check back later” category. Brown looks to be the most ready to contribute at the college level, but Henry and Kithier are very much prospects that will need some more time to develop. Should these two develop intro contributors, expect them to start standing out in 2019-’20 and beyond.

All told, this is a pretty good group of newcomers for Michigan State. The class was ranked 17th nationally by 247Sports and is full of players who could be nice contributors in the Big Ten for years to come. The only downside is that nobody stands out as an “instant impact” prospect for the Spartans. Fans will have to hope somebody can surprise.

4. Points of Optimism

Considering that Michigan State has (once again) been picked as the Big Ten’s preseason favorite, it should come as no surprise that there are some major things to be excited about for this year’s Spartans. There are more than enough pieces for Izzo and his staff to navigate to another Big Ten title and a run in March.

To start, Michigan State brings back plenty of talented and experienced options. This isn’t going to be like last year’s team where Izzo had to figure out how to mold underclassmen together. These are players who have played a ton of minutes in a Michigan State uniform. And a bunch of them have also played in some big moments as well.

In the backcourt, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford both return and that doesn’t even include experienced reserves like Kyle Ahrens and Matt McQuaid. Add in Xavier Tillman, Nick Ward, and Kenny Goins upfront and there are plenty of proven options on the roster for this season. And players like Winston and Ward very well could be in All-Big Ten consideration by season’s end.

The additions should also fit in pretty well for the Spartans. Marcus Bingham should help provide depth upfront and both Gabe Brown and Foster Loyer should be able to compete for minutes in the backcourt as well. Michigan State’s season is going to be made or broken by the returners, but the newcomers shouldn’t be overlooked.

Perhaps the best thing that Michigan State has going for it this season is the experienced backcourt. Winston and Langford were productive last season and should only be better this time around. Izzo also has a strong history of guards who take steps forward as upperclassmen. And while Izzo’s recent run of guards hasn’t been the best, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine stand out as players who got much better in their final seasons in East Lansing.

Nick Ward is also a player to watch this season. His contributions have been mixed over the last two years, but he should be in the running to be one of the best big men in the league. If he can stay on the floor and improve (even marginally), Ward could balance out Michigan State’s lineup and really elevate the Spartans. There’s a limit to his potential, but he definitely hasn’t gotten there yet, which should excite (and also frustrate) fans.

It’s also important to reiterate that Izzo has a proven track record of success at Michigan State, especially when he has experienced players in the lineup. The Spartans have won at least 20 games for seven straight seasons and haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament for well north of a decade. As such, it’s easy to think that success will continue this year.

All told, there’s a lot to like about this Spartan squad for this season. Michigan State won’t be a perfect team, but it should be a good one with some room to grow. Add in a great coach and a fantastic home court advantage and it’s easy to see this team competing for the Big Ten title and much more by season’s end.

5. Team Weaknesses

But even if fans are excited about the Spartans heading into this season, there are also some legitimate reasons for concern as well. This has been said before during this preview, but will be repeated again here. This isn’t a perfect team and while it may be the preseason Big Ten favorite, it is hardly a lock for the conference crown.

To start, Michigan State’s offseason departures are nothing to overlook. Bridges and Jackson were two of the most talented players to come out of the program in quite some time. Even if neither lived up to the hype, both were excellent prospects and contributed significantly last year. They also won’t be easy to replace.

And that’s just the start, too. Michigan State also lost Carter, Schilling, and Tum Tum. Over the course of the season, all contributed for the Spartans. Carter saw some major minutes late, Tum Tum played half of the team’s minutes, and Schilling played at least 10 minutes in half the team’s final 10 games. All three are replaceable, but they’re significant losses when one figures what Michigan State is already losing in Bridges and Jackson.

What this means is that Michigan State is going to have to replace two of its best players and three players off the bench. Izzo is also going to have to figure some things out upfront, where the team’s depth is going to be gutted by these departures.

The pressure is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of Tillman and Ward to step up for these departures. While there are some newcomers, none of them look like they’ll be ready to step in for someone like Bridges as a freshman. That leaves these two returners with the challenge of stepping in for two first round picks.

Whether Tillman and Ward can fill the void remains to be seen. Tillman had a few breakout games and Ward was really productive when called upon. However, Tillman’s minutes were very limited and Ward was incredibly inconsistent. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether these two can put it together before this season.

There’s a lot to like about this year’s Spartan squad. The question will be whether a few of the wildcards break right for the team. The good news is that Izzo has a pretty good track record with these things.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, Bridges was widely regarded as Michigan State’s best player and a likely contender for Big Ten Player of the Year. Here is what I wrote in last year’s preview:

However, with the return of Bridges, this debate ended. He’s going to be the team’s best player heading into this season. There’s really no question about it. That’s what happens when a player is a projected Lottery pick and decides to return to college for another season. He put up huge numbers last year and should be able to replicate those this year. The only question is “how good” will Bridges be this time around.

The most likely challenger to Bridges for the team’s best player will be Ward. The rising sophomore was productive last season and will look to fine tune his game this season. He needs to work on avoiding fouls and his defensive play, in particular. Don’t be surprised if Ward is one of the more underrated players in the league this season.

Two other players to watch will be Winston and true freshman Jaren Jackson. Both have a lot of talent and will look to make a splash this season. Winston was an excellent passer as a freshman and Jackson has the talent to be a first round pick in the NBA Draft. It’s unlikely either of these guys can push Bridges, but they should be able to make a major mark this season if all goes right.

Generally speaking, I think I hit the nail on the head. Bridges was the team’s best and most consistent player. I probably underestimated Jackson and Winston, but Bridges was the key guy who showed up night after night.

However, as noted several times in this preview, Bridges is now gone. As such, there is a clear void for someone to fill for the Spartans this season. Add in Jackson, too, who arguably was in the run for the team’s second-best player last season.

The frontrunners this year will clearly be Ward and Winston. They are the team’s most productive returners and should be setup for nice seasons. Winston likely pulls ahead because of his ability to stay on the floor. The wildcard will be Tillman, who has the potential to be a star player for Michigan State this season.

7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/30 - Northern Michigan
  • 11/6 - vs Kansas (Indianapolis, IN)
  • 11/11 - Florida Gulf Coast
  • 11/14 - Louisiana Monroe
  • 11/18 - Tennessee Tech University
  • 11/22 - UCLA (Paradise, NV)
  • 11/23 - North Carolina/Texas (Paradise, NV)
  • 11/27 - at Louisville
  • 11/30 - at Rutgers
  • 12/3 - Iowa
  • 12/8 - at Florida
  • 12/16 - Green Bay
  • 12/21 - Oakland
  • 12/29 - Northern Illinois
  • 1/2 - Northwestern
  • 1/5 - at Ohio State
  • 1/8 - Purdue
  • 1/13 - at Penn State
  • 1/17 - at Nebraska
  • 1/21 - Maryland
  • 1/24 - at Iowa
  • 1/27 - at Purdue
  • 2/2 - Indiana
  • 2/5 - at Illinois
  • 2/9 - Minnesota
  • 2/12 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/17 - Ohio State
  • 2/20 - Rutgers
  • 2/24 - at Michigan
  • 3/2 - at Indiana
  • 3/5 - Nebraska
  • 3/9 - Michigan

The first thing to remember about this year’s schedule is that the Big Ten bumped up from 18 to 20 conference games this season. For the most part, that means two of the “filler” games have now turned into more challenging conference matchups. Obviously, that’s going to make things more difficult, but it also means that Big Ten slates are going to vary far less. From now on, it’s going to be much rarer to get “lucky” and avoid road trips to places like Ann Arbor, East Lansing, and Madison.

With that out of the way, let’s jump into this schedule.

In typical Michigan State fashion, there’s a lot for fans to get excited about with regard to this year’s schedule. The Spartans are going to play in a plethora of marquee matchups as the team faces off against the nation’s blueblood programs.

To start, non-conference play features plenty of huge matchups. Michigan State opens with Kansas on a neutral court and also gets to face UCLA, Louisville, and Florida. Add in a potential matchup with North Carolina and feisty Florida Gulf Coast and Oakland teams and it’s hard to find much to complain about. This is a loaded slate.

Perhaps the lone concern will be whether some of the “name” opponents can live up to their billing. Michigan State hasn’t hesitated about scheduling blueblood programs in recent years. However, many ended up looking far more intimidating on paper than they did on the court. For instance, Michigan State faced a brand team in UConn last year, but the Huskies ended up finishing at 179th on KenPom.

Admittedly though, that concern is probably just nitpicking. Michigan State will have some huge opportunities to build its resume in non-conference play. The goal has to be going into January with just a few losses.

Conference play also looks like it’s going to be a challenge. Michigan State is going to get double-plays against Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue and also gets a tough road trip to Madison in mid-February. Perhaps the one saving grace is that the team’s league slate in November/December looks manageable.

Maybe this is a cop out, but there’s more than enough for the Spartans to work with for this year’s schedule. The team should be capable of winning a lot of games on this slate and could lose a good deal as well. The Big Ten could vary a lot this year and Michigan State could easily use that to grab another league title. We will see.

Overall, Michigan State projects to win somewhere between 11 and 16 games in Big Ten play. The biggest question mark will be how teams like Indiana, Michigan, and Purdue perform. If those three struggle, Michigan State could put together a gaudy record.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Cassius Winston (Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Matt McQuaid (Sr.) - 80%
  • SF: Joshua Langford (Jr.) - 90%
  • PF: Xavier Tillman (So.) - 60%
  • C: Nick Ward (Jr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting.)

Given that Michigan State is one of the favorites to win the Big Ten this year, it’s not surprising to see a good mix of talent and experience in the team’s lineup. Maybe there aren’t quite as many options as there were last year, but Izzo has plenty on the roster to win his share of games this season.

In the backcourt, Winston should lock down the point. He was one of the team’s better players last season and is now an upperclassmen. Most expect him to compete for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end and rightfully so. He’s a great player and has a chance to build a legacy in East Lansing this year.

The question will be how things sort out alongside Winston. The team returns productive and proven players in Langford and McQuaid, but adds Foster Loyer and two players capable of playing the three in Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry. Additionally, Michigan State also returns Ahrens, who missed all of last season with an injury.

Given Izzo’s preference for experience and the fact that the incoming recruits are pretty raw, Langford and McQuaid seem like safe bets here. The good news for Spartan fans is that Michigan State can alternate these two so that one is always on the floor.

On the wing, three players should be competing for the four spot. They are Marcus Bingham, Kenny Goins, and Xavier Tillman. And all three have very different profiles heading into the new season. Bingham arrives as a hyped freshman, Goins is the experienced older player who knows Izzo’s system, and Tillman is a younger player who showed sparks last season. No spot on the roster has as much depth as Michigan State has here.

Goins started in the team’s exhibition game against Northern Michigan, but Tillman has far more potential long-term. The same can be said for Bingham. Look for one (if not both) of those two to eat up the minutes as the season continues.

Upfront, Ward projects to lock down the five spot. The only real question will be who Michigan State uses to back him up. This is where Braden Burke figures to make his mark. He walked on to the team after transferring from Robert Morris.

There’s a lot to like about Michigan State’s projected lineup heading into this season. The only real question for fans will be how the young players emerge. If the team can get some of them to contribute early and often, watch out.

9. Team Perspective From Jerry Scherwin

“Look, I’m not going to tell you all anything new here. Michigan State is going into the season as a contender not only for their fifth Big Ten regular season title in eleven years, but for a National Championship. They have the needed experience to build upon last years 30-win season and an inside-outside threat in Cassius Winston and Nick Ward.

Michigan State is built, once again, to take the Big Ten by storm. BUT, it’s not how the Spartans do in the regular season this year. It can’t be anymore. For this to be a successful season in the eyes of this fan base (and those of us that can’t get enough Izzo in our lives) they have to compete in March. Winning 30-games and the Big Ten regular season title is great and all, but since losing to Duke in the National semi’s in 2015, the Fighting Izzo’s have under performed in the Big Dance. To me, the Spartans HAVE to get out of the first weekend and push towards the Sweet-16 or bust.” - Jerome Scherwin.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Whether Spartan fans want to admit it or not, the 2017-’18 season was an underwhelming one for the program. The team posted an impressive 30-5 record, but it was an exceptionally hollow 30 wins. Michigan State only beat a handful of good teams and a large chunk of those occurred when the season was just a few weeks old.

Following an underwhelming year isn’t an easy task. There’s going to be added pressure and fans will be hoping for the breakthroughs that didn’t come the year before. And the Spartans are going to be facing those hurdles without last year’s stockpile of talent.

The good news is that Michigan State does still have some nice pieces to work with this season. Not only does Winston return after a stat filled year, but the Spartans also return Langford and McQuaid in the backcourt and Ward upfront. Wildcards like Ahrens and Tillman are also back after showing some sparks early in their careers.

Michigan State also added some nice pieces this offseason. The program is bringing in a top 25 recruiting class featuring two top 100 prospects and walk-on transfer Burke figures to see minutes this season. Even if the team is losing some talented pieces, those are some quality pieces to help things keep rolling.

But as mentioned, replacing those pieces won’t be easy. Bridges and Jackson were first round picks in last year’s NBA Draft and were two of the most talented players to come through the program in years. The Spartans also lost a handful of experienced reserve options and program mainstays.

What this leaves us with is the picture of a team that should be pretty good, but a step below where it was last season. This is a team that is more than capable of making some noise in March. However, it doesn’t quite have the talent to push for a one seed and a national championship without some craziness happening in March.

Big Ten Prediction: 2nd Place