By Zachery Bonzheim
This year Michigan State basketball team is not like the ones of years past. At 11-5 the Spartans’ overall win percentage ranks among the worst in the Big Ten. Losing to a lowly Northeastern team at the prestigious Breslin Center and barely squeaking by a 1-7 Oral Roberts team showed their talent or lack thereof. It was easy to write the Spartans off with all of these facts but if one digs deeper they will see a brighter picture for the young Spartan team.
In the 2016 off-season, the Spartans saw one of their largest departures in recent memory and their best-recruiting class in Tom Izzo’s reign at Michigan State. Michigan State lost starters such as Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello, and Deyonta Davis, in addition to the departures of Javon Bess and Marvin Clark. Key returning players included Gavin Shilling, Matt McQuaid, Alvin Ellis, Tum Tum Nairn, and Eron Harris. State’s season looked poised to make a splash when Izzo signed heralded recruits Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, and Nick Ward while luring UNLV big-man-transfer Ben Carter.
Pieces soon began to fall apart as the season neared, Shilling and Carter, anticipated to be impact big men, both fell to season-ending injuries. Injuries continued in the regular season as heralded recruit Miles Bridges also was bitten by the injury bug. Injuries, plus a tough out-of-conference schedule, proved too tough for the Spartans as they dropped five of their first eight. By now, the young Spartan team was without their two prominent big men, their best player, and only returned one player who started in the last month of the 2015-16 season. The Spartans headed into conference play with one of their worst non-conference records in Tom Izzo’s 22 years and one the worst in the Big Ten. The season looked to be already over…
-Que Big Ten Play-
The Big Ten season is young, but the Spartans have grown. 3-0 in the Big Ten, the Spartans are in first place, a familiar spot for the Izzo-led team. Nick Ward, the Spartans freshman big man has proved himself to be elite, winning “Big Ten Freshman of the Week” three weeks in a row. Freshman point guard, Cassius Winston, is leading the conference in assists. Joshua Langford has established himself as a solid starter and defensive force. The highly anticipated return of the Bridges in Big Ten play was not a letdown, averaging 16.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2 assists. He became a high flying highlight reel in his return against Rutgers with multiple monster slams. Big Ten play had even affected the veterans for the Spartan squad. Senior Alvin Ellis III, who barely saw playing time in the nonconference play, averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds through the first two wins against an at the time 12-1 Minnesota and 12-2 Northwestern teams.
As the season continues, the early season woes seem are beginning to look more and more like something we would expect out of a young and injured team. The Spartans started the year frankly over-ranked at 13th in the nation, making their fall appear even more epic. The Spartans’ losses and wins only began to look better with the season’s progression. The Spartans dropped their opener against currently-ranked Arizona Wildcats (17), followed by losses to the Duke Blue Devils (8), Baylor Bears (2) and a loss at home to unranked, up-and-comer, Northeastern Huskies. Of these losses, only one should be a surprise, Northeastern. With wins coming against 11-5 Florida Gulf Coast, 12-3 Wichita State, 12-3 Oakland Grizzlies, a major program in St. Johns, 13-2 Minnesota, 12-3 Northwestern, and 11-5 Rutgers the Spartans have shown they can handle good basketball teams. Although they have not beat any ranked teams, the wins against Minnesota and Northwestern came when both were receiving votes in the AP Poll while Wichita State has spent time in the top 25 this season.
All of this being said, it is time to take the Spartans serious. Currently at 3-0 in Big Ten play, they sit atop the standings with all of their conferences wins coming against opponents with double-digit wins. It may have taken longer than anticipated, but Izzo’s core is finally healthy and meshing better than any other Big Ten club. As the season matures, these freshmen will continue to master their craft and the upperclassman will continue making the most of every opportunity. Slowly but surely, this is becoming one of Tom Izzo’s classic Spartan teams.