The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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.
Last season Michigan State had one of the worst season’s of Tom Izzo’s career. The Spartans are hoping to rebound this year after last year’s eighth place finish in the Big Ten, the team’s worst since 1992-93 when Jud Heathcote was still the head coach. Though that still saw the team keep the NCAA Tournament streak alive, the team fell to eventual Final Four underdog UCLA in a last-four in matchup. Being 100 percent vaccinated at least should mean the team won’t have any NC State baseball issues come up during the season that could cause a prolonged shutdown like occurred for MSU last season.
Regardless, the Spartans saw a number of departures this offseason, some such as Aaron Henry to the NBA or Joshua Langford to retirement, while others such as Foster Loyer and Rocket Watts hit the transfer portal. A number of incoming players bring fresh anticipation in East Lansing, however.
In the meantime, Coach Izzo remains the man in charge, though some staff shakeups have occurred as well during the offseason. MSU is nothing but potential this year as the team is entering the season unranked for the first time since 2011-12. Can Michigan State bounce back into the upper echelons of the Big Ten this season and make noise come March?
1. 2020-’21 Season Performance
- Record: 15-13 (9-11)
- KenPom Team Rating: #64
- NET Rating: #76
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (Last-Four)
Last season for MSU fans, much like the entire calendar year 2020 was for the world, might best be described as “whiplash.” The Spartans were coming off a 2019-20 season that saw a national title contender sidelined by a global pandemic cancelling the NCAA Tournament. Despite key departures during the offseason, the team came in with high expectations for the year.
Early on, those expectations seemed warranted. The Spartans opened the season with wins on the road at Duke, a rare feat even for an Izzo led squad, and a win over Notre Dame that felt far larger than the final score. An early season cancellation due to a COVID-19 outbreak by Virginia’s squad would deny a key measuring stick as it became clear Duke was having a down season. However, the wheels quickly fell off for MSU starting with a three game losing streak that begin Dec. 20 at Northwestern.
A backbreaking last second loss by just one at Purdue on Jan. 8 would see a 20-day gap as COVID-19 ravaged the MSU roster before resuming play against Rutgers on Jan. 28, falling for the first time to the Scarlet Knights in Big Ten play and resuming the losing streak started at Purdue that would finally end thanks to Nebraska’s visit to East Lansing on Feb. 6 following the Husker’s own COVID-19 pause.
The Spartans managed to rally with the NCAA Tournament streak on the line, however. MSU rattled off seven wins to finish the season, including three against top-five opponents. Despite falling to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State just squeaked into the program’s 23rd straight tournament appearance, now the second longest active streak in the nation. MSU fell to UCLA in overtime in the Last Four matchup, however. Though there is some validity to the viewpoint that MSU should have been a higher seed in the found of 64 but was dropped to the Last Four for television ratings against UCLA.
Individual statistical leaders was pretty much just Aaron Henry in almost every category. Henry led the team in minutes (32.5mpg), points (15.4ppg), assists (3.61apg), and steals (1.3spg). Marcus Bingham led the team in blocks (1.4bpg), while Joey Hauser and Joshua Langford tied for second in points (9.7ppg).
2. Offseason Exits
The Spartans lost would be senior forward Aaron Henry to an early departure for the NBA Draft. Henry ended up landing a two-way deal with the Philadelphia 76ers on a two-way deal as an undrafted free agent, the deal being announced just moments after the NBA Draft ended. When the NCAA Tournament streak was on the line for Michigan State, Henry essentially put the team on his back and willed them to the key wins down the stretch that saved the streak. He was a dynamic player who was pushed far outside his skillset in a number of ways to deliver for MSU last season, and his departure leaves a gaping hole in the stats sheet to replace.
Also gone was super senior Joshua Langford who chose to come back for one more season after an injury riddled career. Langford clearly struggled at times, particularly early on, as he was still coming back from his off-season surgery. However, he still proved a valuable leader on the team and had key stretches where the promising freshman shown through for MSU fans despite his awful fortune in health during his career. Both he and Henry will be difficult to replace for MSU.
After Henry and Langford, the other most notable departures for Michigan State include point guard Foster Loyer and shooter guard forced into the point role Rocket Watts. Both left for the transfer portal (Loyer to Davidson and Watts to Mississippi State) after tough seasons that saw each struggle to fill the shoes of former great Cassius Winston. Loyer initially earned the starting role to open the season, but was quickly eclipsed by Watts. Watts eventually asked to be pulled from the starting line up as playing point guard was proving too much for him.
Finally, also gone is junior forward Thomas Kithier, who saw just 10.8 mpg and managed just 2.4 ppg and 2.5 rpg. Kithier transferred to Valparaiso. Walk-on turned scholarship junior guard Jack Hoiberg also departed, transferring to Texas-Arlington for his senior season.
3. New Additions
This season, the Spartans hit the transfer portal in a big way to grab one of the top available point guards out of it. Tyson Walker left Northeastern and ended up in East Lansing to try and measure up to a history of great point guards at MSU. Walker was only a three-star recruit out of high school, but had notable success against some Big Ten teams in action against them while at Northeastern. He made a number of top impact transfer lists this offseason and is coming off a season of 18.8 ppg and 4.8 apg.
As for the 2021 recruiting class, it includes a number of top players clocking it in at No. 12 in the nation and No. 2 in the Big Ten.
Five-star shooting guard Max Christie headlines the 2021 class. The shooting guard hails from Rolling Meadows, Illinois and was ranked the No. 1 SG in the 2021 class nationally. He is likely to see a starting role develop at some point this season, though perhaps it may not happen in the first several games. The 6-foot-6 freshman is likely to make some noise as a proven and capable scorer.
The rest of the freshman class is also nothing to scoff at. Four-star point guard Jaden Akins and four star forward Pierre Brooks round out the newcomers. Both are skilled players, but likely will see more limited minutes as freshman this season.
4. Points of Optimism
One of the biggest glaring shortcomings of last season for the Spartans that any chances at what fans in East Lansing would consider a decent season was the struggle at the point guard position. At times it seemed Aaron Henry had to basically play almost every position due to the lack of a true Big Ten caliber point guard.
With AJ Hoggard having a full off-season under his belt instead of a Covid impacted first year combined with a preseason surgery, valuable growth should likely come for the sophomore this year. Jaden Akins may see some minutes here and there as well that could help in the long term. However, the biggest benefit for MSU’s offense will be Tyson Walker. Walker will be transferring into a higher-caliber league, but he has shown in his play at Northeastern he can perform on the big stage and will have a far better supporting cast around him. With just a capable point guard this season, not even an elite one, the Spartans should easily get out of the funk they had at all positions last year on that end of the court.
The other main point of optimism for the players is more of just trusting in what has always worked for the Spartans. There is a large amount of potential on the roster in a number of returning role players who are coming into junior and senior seasons now. Maybe it is a cliché for all college programs, but the Spartans have a history of having a player or two break out each season when presented with the opening by talented departures. Whether that is big man Marcus Bingham Jr. finally playing consistent minutes each game, Joey Hauser living up to at least some of the hype going into last season once the team has capable point guard play, or another player like Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, or Julius Marble II emerging as go to players for Michigan State.
Finally, there is of course the fact Tom Izzo is still at the helm. While last season was Michigan State’s worst finish in the Big Ten standings since Jud Heathcote was still at the helm, Izzo has rarely posted back-to-back disappointing seasons. Just twice has he posted back-to-back .500 seasons, and not since 2005-2007. Just one other time since then has the team posted .500 or worse prior to last year, going 9-9 in 2010-11. The evidence to date in his long and hall-of-fame career shows those who doubt him would do so at their peril. Can Mr. March pull off his magic yet again with a stunning turnaround in the 2021-22 season? The crazy thing might be to not expect it.
5. Points of Concern
While Walker may be a great addition to the lineup, he may also struggle when the ball meets the hardwood. There is no guarantee that he will lead the Spartans to success in a rough and tumble Big Ten league. If the younger point guards behind him in the lineup cannot step up in the ways the team needs, either, then this could be yet another lackluster season compared to the expectations Spartan faithful have grown accustomed to.
Then there are the seeming role players on the roster outside of the point guard position. The Spartans may have seen plenty of teams become greater as a whole than the sum of the parts, but can that be this team’s fate? Can players like Malik Hall or Gabe Brown finally have a breakout and perform on a consistent basis rather than the brief glimpses of talent they’ve shown at times? Does MSU need them to, or would even just consistent solid but not star production be enough? All of these are big question marks for the roster and the team’s expectations.
The other glaring question mark for MSU is the front court. The Spartans have a potential elite shot blocker in Marcus Bingham Jr, but he has never been able to put together solid minutes on a consistent basis. Joey Hauser had enormous hype going into last season, but failed to live up to the enormous expectations. Can he turn it around with a reliable point guard this season? Is there a power forward Michigan State has ready to take Hauser’s place if he cannot? There is not really a for sure answer as we barrel toward the season opener for the front court.
6. Top Player
This one is tough this season. Last year it was easy to point to Aaron Henry as the most likely candidate, and the year prior anyone saying a player other than Cassius Winston would have been laughed out of SB Nation. What about this year’s roster?
There is always a chance that Tyson Walker has a breakout season at point and surprises as not just a capable leader of the offense, but a true star as well. If I had to bet my money, though, I would most likely wager that Bingham finally breaks out as a senior. He has reportedly added a fair amount of muscle this offseason as the team as a whole hit the weight room hard.
Bingham’s stamina and focus has been reportedly what holds back his minutes, but as he enters his senior season he seems to have the most upside if he can truly dial-in and stay on the floor consistently throughout the games. He has the frame for an elite shot blocker, can work the post on both ends, and can be a great rebounder for the Spartans if he can just stay on the floor consistently.
7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/27: Ferris State (Ex.)
- 11/4: Grand Valley State (Ex.)
- 11/9: Kansas (Champions Classic, New York)
- 11/12: Western Michigan
- 11/17: at Butler (Gavitt Games)
- 11/20: Eastern Michigan
- 11/24: Loyola (Battle 4 Atlantis)
- 11/25: Auburn/Connecticut (Battle 4 Atlantis)
- 11/26: TBD (Battle 4 Atlantis)
- 12/1: Louisville (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
- 12/4: Toledo
- 12/8 - at Minnesota
- 12/11 - Penn State
- 12/21: vs. Oakland (at Little Caesars Arena)
- 12/29: High Point
- 1/2 - at Northwestern
- 1/5 - Nebraska
- 1/8 - at Michigan
- 1/12 - Minnesota
- 1/15 - Northwestern
- 1/21 - at Wisconsin
- 1/25 - at Illinois
- 1/29 - Michigan
- 2/1 - at Maryland
- 2/5 - at Rutgers
- 2/8 - Wisconsin
- 2/12 - Indiana
- 2/15 - at Penn State
- 2/19 - Illinois
- 2/22 - at Iowa
- 2/26 - Purdue
- 3/3 - at Ohio State
- 3/6 - Maryland
There isn’t an easy start for this squad, much like most seasons under Izzo. Michigan State has a number of big games right off the bat with Kansas, Butler, then Loyola Chicago and either Auburn or UConn after in the Bahamas with the remote possibility of a matchup against Baylor even in the final game, along with Louisville all in the non-conference.
Early league play sets up nicely for the team with Minnesota and Penn State, both teams in rebuilds under first year head coaches. The stretch from Jan. 21 to Feb. 8 looks to be the longest gauntlet for the team, however.
- 1/21 - at Wisconsin
- 1/25 - at Illinois
- 1/29 - Michigan
- 2/1 - at Maryland
- 2/5 - at Rutgers
- 2/8 - Wisconsin
There is not a single game that screams easy win in that stretch. If Michigan State can get through that gauntlet with a winning record in league play still intact, then a 24th straight NCAA Tournament bid will likely be all but in sight just over a month later on Selection Sunday.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Tyson Walker (Sr) - 100%
- SG: Max Christie (Fr) - 60%
- SF: Malik Hall (Jr.) - 60%
- PF: Joey Hauser (Rs. Sr.) - 50%
- C: Marcus Bingham Jr. (Sr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
For me, predicting the starting lineup is not something I excel at. Though to toot my own horn a bit, I did predict that Foster Loyer would get the job last season to start before Watts would be able to win it from him. This season it seems far easier to predict point guard, but after that things feel murky.
Obviously Tyson Walker will be the starter against Kansas at point guard. That seems to almost go without saying. But what about shooting guard? Above I mentioned that Max Christie may not likely start at the shooting guard role as a true freshman, but rather grow into it. However, looking at the roster, I am not sure I have a real answer with Langford and Watts both gone as to who the true two position is that would start besides Walker.
As for the three, it seems like a toss-up between Malik Hall and Gabe Brown. Hall had more starts last season, but Brown had more his sophomore season and will be a senior this year. Still, if I had to make a guess then I would wager Hall may get the nod to start just based on last season’s start totals, which may or may not be a great measure to make the prediction.
As for the front court, it seems likely Hauser will have a short leash but get the starting role at least to begin the season. Bingham is clearly going to be the starter at center at least to open the season.
After that, it gets difficult trying to sort through who ends up seeing the most minutes off the bench throughout the season. Hoggard is likely to be the main relief at point guard. I don’t really have an answer as to who can provide relief for Christie, though perhaps the duo of Hall and Brown could fill the role. Julius Marble should see more minutes spelling, or replacing, Hauser. Mady Sissoko as well at center should likely see more minutes this year providing relief to Bingham and helping out when fouls can become problems.
9. Team Perspective From Paul Fanson of The Only Colors
The Spartans enter the 2021-22 season unranked in the AP poll and picked to finish outside of the top four of the Big Ten. All I can say is that this will only serve to make Coach Tom Izzo a bit salty, and the rest of the conference will not like Coach Izzo when he is salty. The Spartans seemed to take a bigger hit due to COVID last year than many teams and, although there were plenty of bright spots down the stretch, they could never harness a level of consistency.
Over the summer, the roster has again been retooled as Aaron Henry departed for the NBA, Josh Langford retired from basketball, and multiple players transferred out. In their place, coach Izzo brought in another strong recruiting class, highlighted by five-star shooting guard Max Christie, as well as Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker to run the point. With so many new faces on the perimeter, it is reasonable for expectations to be a bit lower this season.
That said, the early reports suggest that MSU’s backcourt, including senior captain Gabe Brown, looks just fine. Couple that with a veteran frontcourt including a stronger Marcus Bingham, and a more experienced Malik Hall (who is also a captain) and Joey Hauser, and of course, Tom Izzo, and all the ingredients are there for a team that no one will want to play in March.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Michigan State it seems safe to say will have a better season than last year. Between issues with Covid outbreaks prior to the season among key personnel like Tom Izzo and then the long pause in January as it ravaged the roster, that alone will not be an issue this year for the team. The mental toll it took was enormous, and the physical toll is tough to gauge as a fan but definitely impacted those afflicted with the virus.
What, exactly, is the ceiling for this team, though? It seems safe to say that a Big Ten title is probably not what fans should expect as a best case scenario. However, the team could easily surprise some, and live up to the optimistic outlook to finish as high as third in the league along with a comfortable NCAA Tournament seed that could see a second weekend visit.
Then again, the flip side of that coin is this team could show it is still too young in some key positions and merely potential without realized production at other key upper classmen roles. If Walker cannot lead the team at point at the Big Ten level, Bingham cannot last longer in games, and upperclassmen wings cannot rise to the occasion outside of Aaron Henry’s shadow then this team will once again struggle in what is looking to be a still formidable, if not quite as insanely deep, Big Ten this year.
If I had to bet then I think fans should expect a few losses in the non-conference against some of the tougher teams, a few wins, and a satisfying if not banner worthy rebound from last season’s disappointment. The one thing that seems easy to predict is that no matter what the ceiling turns out to be with this team, the floor would be a surprise if down the late stretch of February the Spartans are a bubble team again like last season. At the very least, Tom Izzo’s track record year after year seems to make that minimum of a guarantee a given for those in my role.
Big Ten Prediction: 6th Place*
[Editor’s Note - The projected Big Ten finish here is by Thomas Beindit.]