Chris Solari Detroit Free Press
Published 6:57 AM EDT Apr 8, 2019
MINNEAPOLIS — Tom Izzo managed Michigan State basketball’s depth issues in ways he never had to before.
Due to injuries, he played starters 30, 32, 35, sometimes 40 minutes a game. Adjusting his game plans as the Spartans morphed from one of his best fast-paced teams in 24 years into one trying to manage the fatigue. Picking his spots when to insert untested freshmen, who provided pivotal moments that led to their success.
It resulted in a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. A Big Ten tournament title. Three wins over Michigan.
A 32-7 season that tied the 2000 team for the second-most wins in program history.
And an eighth Final Four that had its own share of unique challenges.
[ Ranking Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s eight Final Four teams ]
“You never can feel good because you never know if you can get back here,” Izzo said Saturday night after the Spartans’ 61-51 loss to Texas Tech in the national semifinal. “So I won’t feel good tonight and I’m not gonna pretend to feel good tonight. But I bet you a couple days from now, I’m gonna be so damn proud of this team for not only what they accomplished but how they did it. And the joy they brought.
“It was an incredible year for me, too, just being around them.”
Next comes Izzo’s annual reviews with his players in East Lansing, an exit interview in which the Hall of Fame coach will give them directives of what they did well and what they need to work on going into next season. A process that started in the U.S. Bank Stadium locker room, as the Spartans said farewell to departing seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid.
Those who are returning have one mission: Get back to the Final Four and go after Izzo’s elusive second national title. They should be a top-5 or better favorite going into the 2019-20 season.
“If we’re not here (at the Final Four), we did something wrong,” swingman Aaron Henry said. “It’s gonna be our fault and nobody else’s fault if we’re not here again and actually winning it next time. … We’re getting the whole team back. I’m not stopping until I get back here.”
There are decisions to be made about testing the NBA waters, though no slam dunk like last year, when Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. chose to enter the 2018 draft. And there remains questions about the health of two key seniors-to-be.
Nick Ward also went through workouts a year ago but decided to return to bolster his game and pro profile. He appears most likely to leave, though his late-season hand injury makes the choice more complex. Both Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston, as well as Henry and Xavier Tillman, could choose to explore the draft process, and see what scouts say in the coming weeks.
But before they decide, here is an early look at what Izzo likely will have for his 25th season as MSU’s head coach.
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PG Cassius Winston, senior
Stats: 18.8 points, 7.5 assists, 3 rebounds in 33.5 minutes
Winston played in all 39 games and showed growth as a scorer and leader, but building his leg strength — according to both he and Izzo — will be an offseason mission. The wear and tear of having to play long stretches showed as his 3-point shooting percentage went from 45.5% at the end of January to 39.8% by season’s end, making 25 of 81 over MSU’s final 17 games. The 6-foot-1 Winston likely will return, and should have more help next season.
SG Joshua Langford, senior
Stats: 15 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists in 28.6 minutes
How quickly and well Langford recovers from his February foot surgery – he anticipates returning to the court in the late summer or early fall – is integral to the Spartans’ starting group. MSU lacked his outside shooting and defensive prowess in the Final Four, and the 6-6 sharpshooter will need time to return to the form he showed in his 13 games before the injury. When he does come back, Izzo will want Langford to become a more aggressive rebounder from the wing.
Related: Joshua Langford has different view for MSU’s Final Four run
G/F Aaron Henry, sophomore
Stats: 6.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists in 22 minutes
No player on MSU’s roster this season surpassed expectations, going from averaging 14.5 minutes a game through December to playing 25.7 minutes in the final 26 games after Langford went down. The rangy 6-6 wing blossomed into a tough-nosed defender, beginning to crash the boards harder and score a little more in the final two months. Henry’s biggest need is to develop a more consistent midrange and 3-point shot, and continue to make progress slashing to the basket from the perimeter to score and create.
PF/C Xavier Tillman, junior
Stats: 10 points 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.7 blocks in 24.1 minutes
Tillman received his first career start before Ward got hurt, but the versatile 6-8 big man averaged 13.3 points and 8.2 rebounds in 29.4 minutes from Feb. 20 onward after he entered the starting lineup for the final 13 games. The long-armed, physical defender produced a career game against Duke and Zion Williamson to earn NCAA All-East Region honors. Adding in 3-point shooting to his game will be next – he made one in each of MSU’s final three games – and continuing to show he can defend quicker forwards and wings could push him into a potential first-round pick by the end of next season unless he chases his pro future sooner.
Related: To understand Xavier Tillman’s rise at MSU, start with his daughter
PF/C Nick Ward, senior
Stats: 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks in 20.8 minutes
Many expect Ward to turn pro after working on many of the things scouts a year ago told him to improve, though a hairline fracture in his left (shooting) hand cost him five games and turned him into a ghost of where he was in early February. The 6-9 big man’s deft touch around the basket vanished, his game-changing ability to run in transition faded with his decrease in conditioning, and he struggled to catch and handle the ball at times when he returned after surgery zapped his hand strength. He continues to need work in those areas, as well improving his midrange shooting if he wants to be in the back end of the second round of the draft. If the hand is an issue for NBA scouts, Ward could bolster MSU’s frontcourt for one more year.
G/F Kyle Ahrens, redshirt junior
Stats: 4.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists in 18.8 minutes
Like Langford, where 6-6 wing Ahrens needs to get back to full strength to provide maximum impact with gritty defense, outside shooting and deceptive athleticism as a key cog to MSU’s transition game. The biggest concern for the oft-injured Ahrens is his back, which continued to give out on him before the severely sprained left ankle ended his season March 17.
F Thomas Kithier, sophomore
Stats: 1.6 points, 1.3 rebounds in 5.8 minutes
When MSU needed a spark or if foul trouble struck its three-man post rotation, the 6-8, 225-pound Kithier was Izzo’s first freshman called upon to bring energy and scoring in the middle of the season. He needs to add more mass and strength to his frame to survive and thrive against the big bodies in the Big Ten, as well as continued understanding of Izzo’s defensive concepts and demands.
More: Michigan State’s freshmen soak in Final Four experience
PG Foster Loyer, sophomore
Stats: 1.6 points, 0.4 rebounds, 0.9 assists in 5.8 minutes
Like his fellow Clarkston High product Kithier, Loyer showed brief glimpses of his talents, highlighted by an 18-point, four 3-pointer performance against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. Building strength and working on defensive quickness are essential for the 6-foot, 170-pounder. He also needs to improve his decision-making and ball protection, after committing 20 turnovers to 32 assists in his 208 minutes.
Related: Foster Loyer looked like Mr. Basketball again. Finally
G/F Gabe Brown, sophomore
Stats: 2.3 points, 1.2 rebounds in 7.9 minutes
The springy 6-7 wing never met a shot he didn’t take, and that was good for MSU in his 16-point, four 3-pointer career game against LSU in the Elite Eight. He also grabbed a personal-best five rebounds vs. Texas Tech. But until Brown improves both his ability and knowledge of MSU’s defense, which comes with offseason reps and studying, he remains a one-way player that will be a liability against many matchups.
Related: Gabe Brown carries father’s spirit into Final Four
F Marcus Bingham Jr., sophomore
Stats: 1 point, 1.1 rebounds, 0.4 blocks in 3.5 minutes
Bingham will be one of the most discussed players on the roster in the offseason. He has long arms and at 6-11 is a shot-blocking presence, with outside shooting ability reminiscent of Jackson and Adreian Payne. But his 217-pound frame is not yet built for the rigors of facing the 250-plus-pound brawlers on the blocks in the Big Ten. He wants to be at 225-30 pounds by the fall. Bingham’s progress with his weight gain, as well as Ward’s impending decision and potentially Tillman’s, could dictate his playing time and role – which could be anywhere from starting to end-of-bench specialty contributor.
SF Malik Hall, freshman
Izzo called the 6-7, 190-pound swingman “an OKG – our kinda guy” when he signed with MSU in the fall. Hall most resembles Henry in his ability to create from the wing, solid with the ball and big and versatile enough to score from the perimeter or on the block. He gives the Spartans more of the athletic ability they need to match up with longer, quicker opponents.
SG Mark “Rocket” Watts, freshman
Getting Watts signed – it is supposed to happen when the period reopens April 17 – is the most urgent priority for Izzo and his staff. The 6-2 combo guard is a scorer who can help lessen the burden on Winston, and allow Izzo to go small with those two and Langford on the wing. If Langford and Ahrens are not healthy, Watts could be a vital contributor right away.
PF Julius Marble, freshman
Marble, who like the Spartans this year surged late in his senior season, committed to MSU in early March. He is 6-8, 225 with a sturdy body, a low-post game to finish around the basket with a decent midrange shot, and ability to rebound and block shots. Should Ward leave, Marble would provide an athletic, college-ready replacement.
G Connor George, redshirt senior
PF Braden Burke, junior
G Jack Hoiberg, sophomore
G Brock Washington, sophomore
More: How Michigan State found one last comeback. It ended with its season
Contact Chris Solari at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.
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