December 5, 2021

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Fit And Go Forward

Five make-or-break keys to a successful season

Michigan State basketball’s path to a fourth straight regular-season Big Ten basketball title does not look as clear as it has in recent years.

The 12th-ranked Spartans are not the favorite this year, with Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois ahead of them in the USA TODAY coaches poll. But what Tom Izzo’s team lost in star power with the departures of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, it makes up for with depth, raw talent and balance.

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Here’s what Izzo must figure out in order to remain atop the Big Ten:

Finding a point guard

Michigan State guard Rocket Watts drives against Michigan guard David DeJulius during the second half  of MSU's 87-69 win over U-M on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in East Lansing.
Michigan State guard Rocket Watts drives against Michigan guard David DeJulius during the second half of MSU’s 87-69 win over U-M on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in East Lansing.

Winston was more than just the points and passes, he was the heart and soul of MSU the past four years. Izzo evolved his offense around his two-time All-American to emphasize his court vision and outside shooting.

The plan is for Rocket Watts to slide over from the shooting guard spot and run the offense, which could change that style some. The 6-foot-2 sophomore is built more in the attacking mold of Izzo’s past ball-dominant point guards such as Keith Appling and Kalin Lucas with his ability to drive and create his own shot. Playing next to Winston also benefitted Watts’ passing game.

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Behind him, new captain Foster Loyer returns for his junior season and should get more minutes to allow Watts to play off the ball. And freshman A.J. Hoggard gives a third option when he recovers from a recent knee procedure.

Blending Hauser

Izzo said last season Marquette transfer Joey Hauser would have started had he been granted immediate eligibility. He will get his chance this fall after sitting out following an All-Big East freshman team season in 2018-19.

What MSU loses with Tillman it gets back in the 6-9, 220-pound junior. Hauser averaged 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in his one season at Marquette, and Izzo has raved about his passing ability that led to 2.4 assists per game that year. He is a dangerous 3-point threat to stretch defenses, something Izzo has been missing the past two seasons.

Hauser not playing last year allowed other forwards to develop. Sophomore Malik Hall emerged as a newcomer last season, and junior Gabe Brown started strong before fading in the second half. Making sure those two get minutes, either there or on the wing, will make the Spartans a more dangerous shooting team.

Man in the middle

Tillman emerged as a triple threat as a defender, rebounder and eventually scorer the past two years. His 6-8 frame continued to grow more and more chiseled with his work, which allowed him to leave a year early for the NBA.

Kentucky forward Nate Sestina (1) vies for a rebound with Michigan State forwards Marcus Bingham Jr. (30) and Julius Marble (34) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Kentucky forward Nate Sestina (1) vies for a rebound with Michigan State forwards Marcus Bingham Jr. (30) and Julius Marble (34) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Who replaces him at power forward/center will be as intriguing to watch as the point guard competition. Marcus Bingham Jr. started 16 games last season and has been a stingy rim protector, but his inability to gain weight has led to struggles with physical big men. Fellow junior Thomas Kithier started five games and showed flashes over the years as a solid defender and opportunistic scorer but has been relegated to more of a role player.

Sophomore Julius Marble got limited minutes last season and is physically capable of stepping in. So is freshman Mady Sissoko, who is a prototypical fast-break athlete at 6-9 who has a 7-4 wingspan and can be a difference maker in the paint. Hall could step in should Izzo go with a smaller lineup.

X-factor: Joshua Langford

Michigan State guard Joshua Langford scores against Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp during first half action Monday, December 3, 2018 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.
Michigan State guard Joshua Langford scores against Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp during first half action Monday, December 3, 2018 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.

It was uncertain whether Joshua Langford would return for his fifth year, or even play basketball again after two surgeries on his left foot in 2019. The 6-6 swingman has not played in nearly two years since getting hurt in late December 2018.

But when he was healthy two years ago, Langford looked ready to take the next step into All-Big Ten performer by averaging 15.0 points a game and showing the ability to take over as a scorer. He and Aaron Henry also were turning into a dynamic defensive duo. Add to them Watts, a terrific on-ball defender, and Izzo could have one of his best trio of lockdown defenders.

If Langford is healthy, that is. How much he can give remains to be seen. Can he start and return to playing 25 to 30 minutes a game? Will he come off the bench as a super sub and shooting weapon and be in a 10 to 20 minute role? Managing the wear and tear over a long winter will be just as important for Langford as showing he is fully recovered.

Henry’s time

Michigan State Spartans forward Aaron Henry scores against Wisconsin Badgers forward Nate Reuvers during the first half at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.
Michigan State Spartans forward Aaron Henry scores against Wisconsin Badgers forward Nate Reuvers during the first half at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.

No player is more important to MSU’s success this season than Henry, who Izzo has called a “Swiss Army knife” for his ability to shoot outside, penetrate from the wing off the dribble and then pass, pull up or pogo to the rim. It is talent enough that entering the NBA draft to get an assessment made sense, but raw enough that another year under Izzo was critical to his draft stock.

While Henry always has made players around him better by doing the little things in games, he needs to take that next step in being a leader and primary weapon. He can no longer defer to Winston and Tillman, so the 6-6 swingman must make the jump Winston did between his sophomore and junior season by looking for his shot more often, becoming more aggressive on offense and defense as well as attacking the boards and demanding those around him to follow his lead.

Contact Chris Solari: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball: Five keys to a successful season

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