The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘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 sports, expectations are like a drug for fans. They find themselves ingesting them every offseason, only to wake up to the hangover at the end of the season. Maybe they swear themselves off for a month or two, but they always end up coming back to the trough by the time the season tips.
We all know that expectations vary by program, but coming into any respective college basketball season, most fans are hoping to make the NCAAs and have a realistic shot at the Final Four. Obviously, things vary by the year, but that’s generally the standard. Hope that their team is relevant enough to be on the various March Madness brackets and surprise when the spotlight turns to the sport.
But that’s not the case for Michigan State this year.
Tom Izzo and the Spartans always have high expectations, but this year is different. Michigan State returns the vast majority from a team that won 32 games, the Big Ten regular season championship, the Big Ten Tournament, and made the Final Four last season. It’s an incredibly rare occurrence, but the Spartans have managed to pull it off.
Unlike many of the teams that land in the preseason top 25, this isn’t a team built on hype or recruiting rankings. This is a team filled with proven players who have already gotten it done before. Even if the players remain who they were last year, it’s not crazy to imagine this team making the Final Four once again. And that’s quite a statement to make.
But that’s not the goal this time around. That goal, of course, is simple. To win the national championship. Anything else would be a disappointment.
It’s rare that a team enters the season with that kind of objective. Sure, coaches will always say that’s the ultimate goal, but we know that’s not always the case. Whether people want to admit it or not, most teams don’t enter a season with the idea that they’re going to win the national championship. As we discussed above, most are just hoping to be relevant by the time we reach March Madness. It’s usually about winning the conference, making the postseason, or something similar. Only one team gets to cut down nets to close the season. That’s not a lot of room for error.
For nearly 10 years, I’ve been covering Big Ten basketball and the only Big Ten team I have ever seen enter a season with these kind of expectations was Wisconsin heading into the 2014-’15 season when Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker returned to school. But even then, I didn’t put the “national title or bust” moniker on the Badgers.
While we’ve talked about Final Fours, winning the Big Ten, and advancing into the postseason, this is the first time I have ever put these kind of expectations on a team. And it’s generally been because of what I talked about above. It’s really, really hard to win a national championship. You have to be insanely talented, experienced, and also get lucky.
But even with all that said, Michigan State enters this season with those expectations. This is as good of a Big Ten team entering a season as I think I’ve ever seen since covering the league. Every position is proven and the team has more than enough depth and talent to make up for any perceived shortcomings. If not now, then when?
1. 2018-’19 Season Performance
- Record: 32-7 (16-4)
- KenPom Team Rating: #3
- NET Rating: #5
- Postseason Appearance: Final Four
There really isn’t much to complain about with regard to Michigan State’s performance last season. The Spartans had two early missteps early against Kansas and Louisville, but took off from there, winning 13 in a row after falling on the road against the Cardinals. And while Michigan State wasn’t perfect after that, its performance never really dipped. The Spartans concluded the season by winning the Big Ten Tournament and making the Final Four.
And what really stood out for the team was the final portion of the regular season and postseason play. Michigan State finished off the regular season by beating arch-rival Michigan at home, beat three top 50 teams in the Big Ten Tournament, and then beat four more opponents in the NCAA Tournament to make the Final Four. The win over Duke in the Elite Eight was also notable, considering the hype the Blue Devils were getting thanks to freshman superstar Zion Williamson.
I feel bad for describing such a great season in so few words, but there really isn’t much to say here. The Spartans were dominant all season and got to raise three banners as a result of those efforts. There were seven losses, but the only one that truly mattered was the loss to Texas Tech in the Final Four. And it’s hard to get down about losing to an opponent like the Red Raiders. That was an absurdly good team.
This will sound a lot like the intro, but the only criticism (if you even consider it one) that can be held against this team is that it didn’t finish things off in the Final Four. It’s one of the main reasons the expectations are so high entering this season. Fans are hungry to check off that final box on the list.
Determining highlights of the season for this squad is probably a lot like picking your favorite candy or beer. There’s a lot to choose from. The three wins against arch-rival Michigan are certainly up there along with the two Big Ten titles, and the win over Duke to make the Final Four. The 13-game winning streak was also really impressive. The low points of the season were the losses to Illinois, Indiana, and Texas Tech.
Individual statistical leaders were Kenny Goins, Xavier Tillman, Nick Ward, and Cassius Winston. Goins led the team in rebounds. Tillman led the team in blocks. Ward led the team in usage among contributors. Winston led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, and total win shares.
2. Offseason Exits
Every team and roster is unique heading into any given offseason, but generally speaking, the better a team is, the more that team loses when the season ends. And the logic behind that isn’t complicated. Experience and NBA talent generally leads to more wins on the court. That traditionally equates with players graduating and heading to the NBA Draft.
However, this year’s Michigan State team is an exception that rule.
The Spartans went 32-7 last season, won the Big Ten, and made the Final Four. That’s the epitome of a team one would expect to be hit hard with offseason attrition. But that’s not the case here. Michigan State is losing just three players in Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Nick Ward. And while all contributed significantly for the team last season, none of the three are irreplaceable. That’s pretty incredible for a team with that level of success.
Of these three departures, there was no clear standout. What I mean by that is that all three contributed in roughly the same amount. Goins and McQuaid started for the team and played heavy minutes. And though Ward’s contributions faded as the season went on, he was a valuable reserve big man and helped the team early on. And as the year went on, Goins improved as an outside threat and McQuaid turned into a dynamite defender.
Perhaps the most significant thing Michigan State will be losing from these three is outside shooting. McQuaid shot 42.2 percent from three-point range last season and Goins hit 34.4 percent as well. Even if the Spartans get Joshua Langford back from injury, those kind of numbers won’t be easy to replace. Ward was also a really good rebounder when he did make it on the floor and drew a lot of fouls inside.
The biggest thing to reiterate here, though, is how “ordinary” these departures are for the Spartans. The team is losing a backup and two starters, and arguably none of its best players. After all, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman led the team in total win shares. Goins and McQuaid came in thereafter, but they were a decent hunk behind. This just isn’t something you regularly see from a team that won as many games as the Spartans did last season. It’s a key reason why the team is receiving so much offseason hype.
3. New Additions
This season, the Spartans will be adding three new recruits, a transfer, and a walk-on to the roster. The new recruits are Malik Hall, Julius Marble, and Rocket Watts, the transfer is Joey Hauser, and the walk-on is Steven Izzo. Watts is noted as a combo guard, Izzo as a guard, and Hall and Marble are listed as power forwards. Hall and Watts are four-star prospects on 247Sports and Marble is a three-star.
The recruit receiving the most attention in this class is certainly Watts, who arrives on campus as a top 40 prospect and one of the best players in the midwest in the 2019 class. He is listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds and many believe he could be an immediate bench option for the team. In fact, if Winston had opted to enter the NBA instead of returning to school, there’s probably a decent chance Watts starts at the point guard position this season. He’s just that good.
Michigan State’s other two incoming recruits have received less hype, but should be able to provide depth on the wing for the Spartans this season. The team’s returning depth, however, will likely limit how many minutes these two can get early in their careers. Hall is the more likely to get early playing time and could be selected as the option to fill in for some of the minutes Goins received last season. The walk-on addition is Izzo, who is Tom Izzo’s son. Don’t expect him to play much for the team in the coming months.
The transfer addition is Hauser, who joins the team from Marquette. Due to NCAA rules, he will have to sit out the upcoming season. Tom Izzo indicated that the program has applied for a waiver, but the result of that is unknown at the time this preview was written. As such, we will assume he cannot play this season. With that said, he should provide a massive boost when he’s eligible to hit the floor.
All told, this is a really talented group, especially considering what Michigan State is already returning this offseason. The Spartans would have been a Final Four contender without adding a single roster piece and this recruiting class ranked second in the Big Ten, per 247Sports. That’s a good position to be in entering a season.
4. Points of Optimism
Given how good Michigan State figures to be entering this season, this section is probably unnecessary. This team was ranked No. 1 in the initial AP Poll and is one of the favorites to win the national championship. Fans are more than familiar with the weapons that Izzo and his staff will have at their disposal this season. Nonetheless, let’s dive into some of the biggest reasons why fans should be so excited about this time.
The biggest reason for optimism about this team is No. 5’s return. After putting together an All-American season, Winston decided to return to East Lansing for his senior campaign. He made that decision after a season where he averaged 33.5 minutes, 18.8 points, 7.5 assists, and 3.0 rebounds per game. Notably, he was last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year as well.
Most fans probably realize this, but it’s not normal to see a player with those kind of numbers return to school. Most fanbases with an All-American expect the guy to go elsewhere when the year ends. Michigan State has been pretty fortunate in this regard in recent years. Miles Bridges did it a few years ago and Winston did it now.
However, even comparing Winston to Bridges might be misleading. Bridges was a really good player, but Winston is elite. He’s one of the most dominant players to come through the Big Ten over the last decade and there’s no reason to think he will regress this time around. And as a primary ball handler, he can impact the game even more.
I write this is almost every preview, but star power matters in college basketball. The teams with the most stars generally win the most games. And Michigan State might have a better star than anybody in the country this season in Winston. That alone should get fans excited about what’s to come in the next few months.
And what’s even more significant is how much the team returns around him. Aaron Henry returns in the backcourt, Gabe Brown returns on the wing, and Xavier Tillman is back in the frontcourt. Throw in Joshua Langford’s potential return from injury and depth pieces like Kyle Ahrens, Marcus Bingham, and Thomas Kithier and this is a great roster. If even a few of those players improve last season, the Spartans could do some major damage.
Plus, as mentioned earlier, Michigan State is also adding a talented group of newcomers. Hall and Watts both arrive on campus as four-star prospects and could offer the team valuable minutes off the bench. And Watts’ potential is even more exciting, given that he has the potential to provide relief effort for Winston this season. We know what Winston can do when he dominates minutes, but imagine if he’s even fresher.
The final thing that warrants mention here is something we touched on in the intro. This is a team that has already won at an elite level. This group doesn’t need to “learn how to win” or figure out how to beat elite opponents. The Spartans went 32-7 last year and made the Final Four. The team recorded eight wins against top 20 opponents on KenPom last season. The Spartans don’t need a learning curve. This team should be ready from day one.
Returning a few quality players doesn’t guarantee success. Nonetheless, it’s hard to look at this team and not see where things could be heading in the coming months. This group of Spartans look special on paper.
5. Points of Concern
Maybe I am skipping ahead a bit here, but there’s a pretty reasonable chance that Michigan State sits atop everyone’s rankings heading into this season. And if not, the team will undeniably be in the top five. As such, there just aren’t a lot of massive weaknesses on paper for Michigan State. There are some concerns, but they’re generally going to come across as nitpicking, and rightfully so. This team has no obvious weakness.
From a roster perspective, the biggest challenge for the Spartans in the coming months will be replacing Goins and McQuaid in the lineup. As noted above, neither of these guys are irreplaceable, but both were productive. Both also got much better in their final seasons in East Lansing. We can’t just assume new players can fill their shoes.
Michigan State seemed to have a pretty obvious replacement for McQuaid this year with Langford returning from injury. However, he got injured again and will be out until at least January. As such, Henry seems like a potential option. Kyles Ahrens also apparently started in the team’s recent secret scrimmage against Gonzaga. These two will probably get most of the minutes alongside Winston in the backcourt.
Replacing Goins, though, could be a bit trickier. Tillman will start at the five spot, but who plays alongside him? While Izzo has options, nobody seems like a lock. Marcus Bingham reportedly earned the starting spot in the secret scrimmage, Brown returns after playing a lot of minutes, and the team also has an experienced player in Kithier. Stylistically, Izzo probably wants to go with more size. We’ll just have to see who can produce. This spot seems like the most likely to take a step back from last season.
Still, losing Goins and McQuaid is far from impossible to overcome. In fact, they feel pretty ordinary in a global sense. A team losing two starters isn’t something that will draw national headlines. What’s more important about this discussion, however, is how it could impact the team’s chemistry.
The Spartans had things rolling last year and it relied in large part on two players (Goins and McQuaid) who could contribute without the ball. Everyone knew how things worked. Winston dominated the ball and could find open shooters and guys inside. Will that work as well with the new guys? For example, Langford had a pretty high usage rate before he went out with injury last year. Coincidentally, last year’s Michigan State team took off around that time. Inserting a player like that into the lineup could shift the chemistry significantly. If I’m a Spartan fan, that’s the biggest roster concern.
Playing with massive expectations is also a challenge in itself. Everybody wants to be undefeated and highly ranked, but there’s a certain pressure associated with that. Solid wins are no longer good enough. Fans and media expect blowouts in just about every game. And every misstep will be talked about for weeks on end. Michigan State slid under the radar for a good portion of last season. That won’t happen this time around and that comes with a variety of different challenges. It’s a good problem to have, but plenty of teams have failed to live up to expectations before.
Ripping on this team coming into this season is simply nitpicking. Nonetheless, there are certainly some challenges the Spartans will have to overcome to reach the team’s goals. Namely, figuring out the team’s chemistry with some departures and learning to play under even brighter lights.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, Michigan State had a clear void on its roster. The team was searching for its next star after Bridges departed for the NBA. Here’s what I wrote:
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.
Obviously, that’s no longer the case this time around. Winston went from a decent guard in the Big Ten to a superstar over the course of the season. Not only did his game improve, but the rest of the lineup and team learned how to play with him. He dominated the ball and led the offense and would feed shooters and bigs. It made the team’s offense nearly impossible to defend. Unless you had someone who can stay with Winston, you were toast.
Given Winston’s return to Michigan State, there’s really no reason to think any of that changes this time around. There are a few other Spartans that seem poised for breakout campaigns, but nobody is expected to be in Winston’s league. He’s this team’s best players and fans should enjoy him while he’s still on campus.
7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/29 - Albion (Ex.)
- 11/5 - Kentucky (New York, NY)
- 11/10 - Binghamton
- 11/14 - at Seton Hall
- 11/18 - Charleston Southern
- 11/25 - Virginia Tech (Lahaina, HI)
- 11/26 - Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI)
- 11/27 - Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI)
- 12/3 - Duke
- 12/8 - Rutgers
- 12/14 - at Oakland
- 12/18 - at Northwestern
- 12/21 - Eastern Michigan
- 12/29 - Western Michigan
- 1/2 - Illinois
- 1/5 - Michigan
- 1/9 - Minnesota
- 1/12 - at Purdue
- 1/17 - Wisconsin
- 1/23 - at Indiana
- 1/26 - at Minnesota
- 1/29 - Northwestern
- 2/1 - at Wisconsin
- 2/4 - Penn State
- 2/8 - at Michigan
- 2/11 - at Illinois
- 2/15 - Maryland
- 2/20 - at Nebraska
- 2/25 - Iowa
- 2/29 - at Maryland
- 3/3 - at Penn State
- 3/8 - Ohio State
Like most Michigan State schedules in the Izzo era, this one has more than its fair share of intriguing matchups. The Spartans are going to be tested early and often during the course of non-conference play and will also have some great league games as well. The good news is that the team is capable of overcoming the challenging slate.
The non-conference games that will attract the most attention are the showdowns with Kentucky and Duke and the trip to Maui in late November. If fans can’t get excited about playing blueblood programs like that, maybe tune in to another sport.
What’s particularly interesting about the matchup with Kentucky is that the two teams will enter the matchup atop the national polls. Michigan State was ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP Poll and Kentucky came in at No. 2. Preseason rankings don’t guarantee success, but that’s a pretty blockbuster matchup on paper.
The Duke matchup will also turn some heads. It’s the first time the Blue Devils have traveled to East Lansing since 2003. Expect an incredible crowd for that one. Many believe Duke gets favorable treatment in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, so this will be a nice change. The Blue Devils will have to go on the road to play a team perceived to be better than them.
We generally know what to expect out of conference play with the new 20-game slate, but I do find Michigan State’s closing stretch intriguing. Here’s what the Spartans face:
- 2/8 - at Michigan
- 2/11 - at Illinois
- 2/15 - Maryland
- 2/20 - at Nebraska
- 2/25 - Iowa
- 2/29 - at Maryland
- 3/3 - at Penn State
- 3/8 - Ohio State
Even for a team like Michigan State, that’s not an easy stretch. Five of the games are on the road and the three home games are against teams that made the NCAAs—the Round of 32, in fact—last year. It will take quite an effort to get through that unscathed.
All told, this is a slate that’s going to get people pretty excited. It’s stacked with marquee games, including matchups with Duke and Kentucky early in the season. The challenging slate will likely prevent Michigan State from amassing some ridiculous record, but it should pay dividends by the end of the season.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Cassius Winston (Sr.) - 95%
- SG: Kyle Ahrens (Rs. Sr.) - 70%
- SF: Aaron Henry (So.) - 95%
- PF: Marcus Bingham (Rs. Sr.) - 55%
- C: Xavier Tillman (Jr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Generally speaking, most teams enter the season with a hole or two in the team’s lineup. Most are going to be devoid of a proven point guard, or preparing to rely on a true freshman to take over a spot. Perhaps it was different decades ago before so many players went pro or transferred, but most teams have gaps.
Michigan State enters this season with no obvious voids on the roster. The only reason the lineup isn’t completely set here is because Izzo has so many solid options to choose from. This team is overflowing with talent, experience, and hyped prospects.
We all know Winston will lock down things at the point guard position. The question will be who plays alongside him. Ahrens started in the team’s recent secret scrimmage, but I also anticipate that Aaron Henry will play heavy minutes at the position. Henry seems likely to start at the three and should replace Ahrens when he goes to the bench. Watts is also a potential option for reserve minutes here, given his diverse skillset.
On the wing, Henry should start at the three. But that’s where things should get really interesting. Izzo has a number of options to choose from at the four spot and for reserve at the three. Brown played heavy minutes last season on the wing, Hall is a talented incoming freshmen, and Bingham and Kithier are both bigger players who can rebound. All are going to play some minutes, it’s just about who emerges.
Bingham seems like the most likely option initially, but don’t be surprised if he sits somewhere around 20 minutes a game with Kithier playing a lot of relief minutes. Brown should occupy most of the reserve minutes at the three. Most other teams would probably consider sliding Brown or Henry down, but Izzo likes to play big. And I don’t think that’s an extremely likely option, as neither put on weight this summer.
At center, Tillman is going to lock things down. He was really productive last year and is expected to be one of the league’s better frontcourt defenders this year. The interesting battle will be behind Tillman, as a handful of players compete for the backup role. Bingham has plenty of size to do it and I anticipate he will get most of the minutes there. Former transfer Braden Burke could also be an option at 7-foot.
There’s a lot to like here from the Spartans. A star point guard, a proven big man, and a number of solid options elsewhere. If even a few role players improve from last year, this could be a special season in East Lansing.
9. Team Perspective From Bryce Bennett of BTPowerhouse
”I think there are a couple of interesting questions about this Michigan State team.
First, let’s acknowledge that this is clearly the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten this season. They’ve reloaded after the departures of Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, and Nick Ward. They also possess maybe the best player in college basketball in Cassius Winston. Tom Izzo and experienced point guards fit together pretty well.
The first interesting question is who emerges as Winston’s number 2? Joshua Langford was an obvious choice, but now he’s gone until at least January. Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry are the other two candidates and look ready to break out, but there’s a consistency there they will be asked to take on in their sophomore seasons.
The next question is around expectations. Unquestionably this team’s objective is to win a national championship. How will they handle those aspirations? Sports is full of countless examples of teams that have a goal so clearly expressed and in the open, and it doesn’t always go so well. It’ll be on Izzo and Winston to corral these talented young players, especially in a non-conference season in which the Spartans could play six top-55 KenPom teams.
Finally, if there is some nitpicking around this roster it’s at the four-spot. Michigan State’s best lineup last season was bulldozing teams with the frontline combo of Goins and Tillman. When one of them went out, there was no reprieve with Nick Ward jumping into the ring. In general, this is a successful characteristic of a Tom Izzo-coached team. This season could look a little different with Izzo relying on sophomore Thomas Kithier, or choosing to go small. Can Izzo turn Kithier into a bulldog next to Tillman, or will he have to rely on a smaller, but more athletic lineup?
Fascinating team that should be fun to follow all year long.” - Bryce Bennett
10. Overall Season Outlook
If this hasn’t come across yet, I will just put it out in the open. I detest having to put insane expectations on a team like this. You are simply asking for failure when you enter a college season with that kind of goal. A national championship not only takes a special group of players, but it also takes a good share of luck.
The examples of this are endless, but look at Kentucky during the 2014-’15 season. The Wildcats put together a 38-1 record and were probably the best college basketball team in more than a decade. KenPom gave Kentucky an incredible 36.91 rating. For context, the Villanova team that went 36-4 and blew out everyone in the NCAA Tournament two years ago finished with a 33.76 rating.
And yet, if the goal was a national championship, that Kentucky team failed miserably. The Wildcats didn’t even make it to Monday night, losing to the Wisconsin team we mentioned earlier in the Final Four. It’s the perfect reason why winning the national championship is a ridiculous expectation. Look even at last year’s Virginia team. The Cavs had a 12.2 percent chance of winning against Purdue with less than a minute to go. Virginia ended up winning that game in overtime and needing two more miracle finishes to win it all.
For brevity’s sake, I will stop there, but the point should be clear. Winning the national championship isn’t hard. It’s borderline impossible. You need to be a great team, get lucky, and hope the bracket breaks right. Run into one team in March that has your number and you’re done. It’s as simple as that. The divide between success and failure is that small.
But with all that said, this is the year for the Spartans. There’s no other way to evaluate this group and the team’s expectations and come to any other conclusion. This team shouldn’t just be great, it should be elite. This is the best group Izzo has had on paper in at least a decade. He’s had talent before, but Winston is special. And this roster is finally balanced. All the pieces fit together this time around, unlike in some of the program’s prior missteps.
Fans will certainly celebrate every win the team manages to get this season. However, the bar has to be a national championship this time around. Michigan State is simply that good. And it’s the one thing that Izzo has missed over the last two decades or so. He won the 2000 title, but that second ring would put him in even rarer company.
Any reasonable evaluation of this roster indicates this team should be special. Whether the team can achieve its ultimate goal remains to be seen, but that’s where the expectations need to be set this season. Michigan State seems to present the Big Ten’s best chance at breaking its national title drought in years. And that has to leave Spartan fans excited.