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2020-’21 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 2020-’21 season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 11 Michigan State at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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Last season Michigan State had all the pieces in place for what should have been a national title team that could run the gauntlet of a deep Big Ten and negotiate the trials of the NCAA to finally raise Coach Izzo’s second banner. Despite struggles early and in the middle of the conference season, the Spartans were hitting peak March form right on schedule as the conference tournament was set to begin. Cue the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Gone now is Second Team All-American point guard and all-time Big Ten career assists record holder Cassius Winston. Also gone is likely NBA Draft pick Xavier Tillman who leaves another big hole to fill in scoring and rebounding for Michigan State. Finally, gone is the chance at the 2020 national title.

In the wake of MSU’s departures, a new era at point guard begins with lots of question marks. It is unclear at this point who the Spartans will be able to rely on as the go to scorer, though it is not for lack of potential options. Then again, it is unclear how the season will shape out in the middle of a global pandemic that has seen massive interruptions to everyday life and other sports seasons that have occurred since the cancellation of March Madness last year.

In the meantime, Coach Izzo remains the man in charge (if virtually at the moment as he is recovering from COVID-19 at the time of this writing), and MSU is poised for the potential at least to tie the program record of a four straight Big Ten title streak if the question marks get erased by answers this season.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 22-9 (14-6)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #7
  • NET Rating: #7
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

The season seems best described as “trying” or perhaps “full of adversity.” Right off the bat, the team lost senior Joshua Langford for the season to a season-ending surgery. Then Cassius Winston lost one of his younger brothers, Zachary, after the Albion College sophomore took his own life shortly into the start of the regular season. Freshman Rocket Watts also struggled for much of the season with a lingering injury, missing a few games late in the non-conference season. Finally, long-time Izzo assistant coach Dwayne Stephens was missing for a brutal stretch of losses in the middle of the Big Ten season as he was beside his son following heart surgery. During the roughly three week stretch, it included MSU dropping three of four games.

I don’t say that as an excuse for losses or for failing to live up to hype, but reality is reality and basketball is just a game. As for MSU, the reality of life was hitting the Spartans hard last year even before the outbreaks of COVID-19 infections across the United States.

As for events on the court, MSU dropped games early to Kentucky, Virginia Tech, and Duke in the non-conference. They did pick up a big road win at then No. 12 Seton Hall in the Gavitt Games. The Spartans got blown out on the road at Purdue in mid-January, and opened February with a three game losing streak at Wisconsin, versus Penn State, and at Michigan before turning it around and winning six of the last seven for a share of their third straight Big Ten title. Five of those wins were also over AP Top-20 teams. Before MSU could face the winner of Ohio State-Purdue in the Big Ten tournament, the post-season was cancelled and the season was over.

Individual statistical leaders were Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston. Tillman led the team in rebounds (10.3pg), blocks (2.1), and tied for steals. Winston led the team in minutes, points, assists, and steals.

2. Offseason Exits

The Spartans lose two key players, a valuable role player, and a few others. First and foremost among those gone is of course Cassius Winston. Winston leaves a giant hole in offensive production for Michigan State. He led MSU in scoring for the past two seasons, while overtaking Mateen Cleaves as the Big Ten all-time career assists leader. He also came tantalizingly close to being just the fourth player ever in NCAA history to score more than 2,000 career points and dish over 900 assists. With the postseason cancelled, he fell 31 points and 10 assists short.

Center Xavier Tillman really had a breakout season last year as a junior. While he did a great job as a sophomore, he really emerged as a reliable scoring threat and rebounder for the Spartans after Nick Ward and Kenny Goins both left after the 2018-’19 season. Tillman averaged a double-double on the season with 13.7 points per game and 10.3 rebounds. He also added in an average three assists per game. Tillman was a lock down defender down low in the post, particularly highlighted by the Iowa game in East Lansing when Tillman held Luka Garza to just six points in the second half and scoreless for the last 7:05 of game time. Tillman graduated as a junior, despite he and his wife having their second child during the middle of the season, and he decided to forgo his remaining year of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft.

After Winston and Tillman, the most note-able departure is senior Kyle Ahrens. Ahrens was a scrappy role-player for the Spartans who fought through numerous injuries in his career and kept coming back. While his stats are not the most impressive, 3.6 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 0.5 assists per game, Ahrens really had influence off the ball on both ends. He could play reliable minutes on defense and move off the ball to where he was needed while fighting for loose balls and keeping his man boxed out on defense.

Initial walk-on and later scholarship guard Conner George also graduated. George is the son of MSU’s volleyball coach and mostly saw limited minutes in big wins or losses late in gameplay. Braden Burke graduated and transferred to Central Michigan for his final year of eligibility after seeing few minutes in his two seasons at MSU following his transfer to East Lansing from Robert Morris. Finally, walk-on Brock Washington is no longer with the team after off-court issues. Washington probably spent too much time on the roster as it was given his brushes with authorities and limited minutes.

3. New Additions

This season, the Spartans will be adding two new recruits, combo guard AJ Hoggard and center Mady Sissoko. Both ranks as composite four-star recruits, but neither is likely to see a lot of floor action pending unforeseen circumstances.

AJ Hoggard is listed as a combo guard by 247Sports, and has the size for it at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. While Hoggard is sitting out two weeks due to an injury during preseason practices right now, he is a great passer and defender. Coach Izzo is also high on his rebounding skills and court vision.

Maddy Sissoko originally hails from Mali, but played for Wasatch Academy prep school in Mount Pleasant, Utah. The 6-foot-10, 215-pound big man is heralded as a natural rim protector with his 7-4 wingspan. As a senior in high school he averaged 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. Coach Izzo is especially a fan of his rebounding grit and says he goes after it hard on the court.

4. Points of Optimism

On paper, this team oozes talent in the backcourt for the most part. With Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts, Joshua Langford, and Gabe Brown alone, this is a packed group of shooting guards and small forwards.

Overall the Spartans should not be lacking for scoring options. While star power matters in college basketball, and MSU does not have a clear Cassius Winston level elite player to lead the team, the sheer number of options State has for potential replacements as “the guy” is a position most rosters would love to find themselves in.

Finally, while the focal point of Michigan State’s offense is gone in Winston along with the second leading scorer and a key defensive player in Xavier Tillman, the bulk of this roster’s players have been around for a lot of winning already by now.

From the fifth year senior in Joshua Langford who has at least been in practices and on the bench for three straight Big Ten titles and a Final Four run, to the juniors in players like Aaron Henry and Foster Loyer who have been around for the Final Four run, and even the sophomores like Watts who has been around for a late season surge to claim the Big Ten conference title, these guys have been around a winning program at a high level. They at least understand the work and bright lights that come with that success, if not the position of being in the captains chair to guide the team there themselves.

5. Points of Concern

To yet again bring up the loss of Winston, that is the biggest glaring issue this team faces. If MSU cannot find a viable point guard replacement for Winston, then the team will fall far short of the expectations MSU holds itself to, let alone the fan base.

Finding an outright replacement for Winston is impossible. He was arguably a once in a generation type of college player, but what the Spartans need is a serviceable point guard to set up the offense for MSU and feed the ball to the long list of playmakers making up the backcourt.

To that end, it is unclear if Foster Loyer is the for sure guy who can do that or if Rocket Watts can make the transition from the shooting guard role to the primary ball handler. Without a clear cut answer for the job, that is a big question mark for Michigan State entering the season. It is certainly not impossible one of the two emerges as the answer, or both could split time more or less equally in setting up the offense. But neither is a given, and that is a key role for any basketball team in establishing the roster for a team that can challenge for a conference title and NCAA tournament run.

The other glaring question mark for MSU is down low at center. The Spartans do not have a clear cut replacement at center this season for Xavier Tillman. Marcus Bingham still lacks a lot of size in terms of muscle you hope to see in a Big Ten center. Thomas Kithier, while a smart player who can defend well enough, just hasn’t shown the level of play you’d like to see from a big man to rely on as a go to scorer down low to replace Tillman’s production. Beyond that, MSU has Maddy Sissoko who is a freshman and not necessarily someone Coach Izzo is likely to rely on for big minutes. As a result, MSU does not have a big man for the five position that is a reliable contributor in all likelihood that can for sure replace Tillman’s production on the boards and scoreboard.

Given the glaring question mark at two of the key positions in Big Ten play, MSU is by no means a for sure conference title contender this season. They have the backcourt depth to challenge for it, but with the question marks at the one and five positions it is far from certain they will be a lock on a for sure contender.

6. Top Player

It is a toss-up for this one between a few question marks. Aaron Henry seems the safest bet, but cases could be made for Rocket Watts, Joshua Langford, and Joey Hauser as well.

I will put my own money on Aaron Henry being the top player this season. Henry was a borderline draft prospect at the end of last season, and got a lot of valuable feedback from scouts and NBA franchises while exploring his options during the off-season. He has reportedly returned to campus after spending the time off focusing on his two biggest weaknesses from last season: ball-handling and his shot.

If Henry has resolved both of those issues, combined with his emergence on defense last season, he will be a versatile scorer on one end while being a relied upon lockdown defender on the other. His ability to get to the rim and score will be an important component as MSU looks to replace the production of Winston and Tillman this season.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/25 - Eastern Michigan
  • 11/28 - Notre Dame
  • 12/1 - at Duke
  • 12/4 - Detroit
  • 12/6 - Western Michigan
  • 12/9 - at Virginia
  • 12/13 - Oakland
  • Michigan, at Michigan

There isn’t much to talk about in this section yet given the unique year that is 2020. The only games that are confirmed date-wise are non-conference games. Michigan State will open the season against Eastern Michigan. Then Notre Dame visits East Lansing for the first non-paired event regular season game since the 1960’s as the first scheduled game so far.

After that MSU is scheduled to play Duke in the Champions Classic, and the game is reportedly to be played at Duke. It will be interesting if that report holds true to see how intimidating Cameron Indoor Stadium is without the Cameron Crazies this season.

MSU will then host Detroit for the first time since 2001, and then Western Michigan.

Then the Spartans head to Charlottesville to play at Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The games against the Cavs over the last decade in the NCAA tournament have been must watch events. The starkly different styles of play each team has makes for interesting and competitive matchups.

Finally, we know MSU’s annual game against Oakland is continuing this year and not likely be as close as some of the series games have been over the last decade. We also know Michigan will be on the schedule twice, but no word yet on the dates. However, we are left just to speculation for who, where, and when for the rest of the season’s schedule at present.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Foster Loyer (Jr.) - 65%
  • SG: Joshua Langford (Rs. Sr.) - 100%
  • SF: Aaron Henry (Jr.) - 95%
  • PF: Joey Hauser (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • C: Marcus Bingham Jr. (So.) - 45%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Point guard and center are the two positions most uncertain for the Spartans. After that Coach Izzo made clear in comments last week that Joshua Langford will be starting at shooting guard. Henry and Hauser are obvious choices for Michigan State at the three and four. Henry is a great athlete, and looks poised to improve his shooting and ball-handling this season. Hauser is a promising transfer who showed lots of potential during his time with Marquette.

I feel confident Foster Loyer will start the season at point guard for Michigan State, but doubt he will not be substituted heavily for Rocket Watts early on until one of them emerges as the clear leader of the offense. As for down low, I really am not at all confident in predicting who it will be. I see a lot of indecisiveness at this position until we see some games under everyone’s belts.

9. Team Perspective From Paul Fanson and Samuel Tyler of The Only Colors

Just like 2020, MSU enters the 2020-21 season with a fair amount of uncertainty, but with reasons for optimism. The biggest challenge will be replacing Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman at the point guard and center positions. But, the combination of Rocket Watts at the point and Marcus Bingham and at the five should be at least serviceable. The Spartans return guards Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, both of whom have NBA-level potential and forward Malik Hall who flashed at times last year during his freshman season. In addition, the Spartans add grizzled (and hopefully finally healthy) veteran shooting guard Josh Langford and Marquette transfer stretch-four Joey Hauser who both have all-Big Ten level potential. If all of these player have continued to refine their game since spring and if they can fit together cohesively, Tom Izzo just might have the weapons to win his fourth consecutive conference title even in the very competitive Big Ten.

The Spartans will open the season ranked No. 13 in the AP poll. This will mark the eighth time MSU has started the season ranked between No. 10 and No. 18 in the Tom Izzo era. In the previous seven instances, the Spartans have three Final Fours (in 2005, 2015, and 2019) and finished no worse than third place in the Big Ten five time. The 2020-21 version of the Green and White would appear to have the same potential.

- Paul Fanson

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This season Michigan State is running slightly under-the-radar despite being ranked at #13 in the preseason polls (and Kenpom’s rankings). The reasons are obvious: the team lost one of its greatest ever point-guards in Cassius Winston and one of the best defensive bigs Izzo has ever had in Xavier Tillman. Two losses of this magnitude would put a damper on any team’s season outlook, but there are reasons for optimism. The two biggest ones are the ‘additions’ of Joshua Langford and Joey Hauser. Langford, finally fully healthy after a year-and-a-half on the sidelines with various foot-related ailments, has gotten rave reviews from Izzo and is slated to start the season at his familiar position on the wing. Hauser, who may be the most talented offensive power-forward Izzo has ever had (a 50-40-90 threat this season), has also received rave reviews from every player and coach in the program.

Joining these two stalwarts in the starting group should be Aaron Henry, with his eye firmly fixed on proving his NBA bonafides, Rocket Watts shifting over to a more-passing-centric point-guard role will more closely resemble former Michigan State all-league performers Keith Appling and Kalin Lucas as a score-first point-guard, and one of the solid big-men with Marcus Bingham jr and Julius Marble the more likely candidates than freshman Mady Sissoko or Thomas Kithier. All of these bigs will play in a center-by-committee rotation. But the real strength of this year’s Michigan State team may just be its depth: in addition to the three capable reserve bigs, Izzo will call on Gabe Brown and Malik Hall on the wing and at the forward position, and freshman AJ Hoggard and the improved Foster Loyer at the guards.

This team will be deep, will have possibly five players average double figures, will have one of the better perimeter defenses in the conference if not the nation, and, as always, has the benefit of Tom Izzo’s offensive wizardry and defensive obstinance. A Final Four run and a Big Ten title are very much the targets for this team. Looking forward, Michigan State just signed the #6 overall recruiting class in the nation for the class of ‘21 (comprising wings Max Christie and Pierre Brooks jr, and point guard Jaden Akins), which may potentially become even more potent if ‘22 signees Emoni Bates (one of the best high school players in the nation and future lottery-pick) and Enoch Boakye (a top-flight Canadian big-man) decide to reclassify into the ‘21 class. In short, things are looking good.

-Samuel Tyler

10. Overall Season Outlook

This is tough to call compared to last season for Michigan State. Last year was a clear cut prediction that MSU was a national title or bust team. They had the returning talent and experience for winning at a high level to have those kinds of expectations. State has now lost some of that talent, many of them key pieces, but still return plenty of experienced and even more in terms of talented players potential wise on their roster.

On the one hand, they have one of the deeper benches talent-wise in the conference at most positions. It is hard to find a deeper roster in the back court that can contribute to the degree MSU’s roster can. The Spartans also have a lot of experience and have won three straight conference titles now in the Big Ten along with holding the most recent Big Ten Conference Tournament title and a number of players who were around for the 2019 Final Four run.

On the other hand, the positions they are not a lock on depth for, point guard and center, are two of the most important positions on the floor. Further, the question marks are far from faint on the Spartan’s options in those roles.

In the end, it will all come down to whether MSU can find a big man down low who can stop players like Kofi Cockburn and Luka Garza just enough and a point guard who can manage the offense enough to overcome defensive slugfests against teams like Wisconsin and Illinois to give the Spartans a chance. If they can, then they will be hanging a fourth straight banner at the end of the season. If they can’t, then it will be a finish somewhere in the middle of the pack for the first time since 2016-’17 season when they finished at No. 7.

Big Ten Prediction: 4th Place