The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 8, Michigan State.
(1) Will Tom Izzo win his second national championship?
Thanks to the events of April 13, 2017, you can rate his chances as strong to quite strong. On that day, Miles Bridges elected to forgo a likely spot as an NBA Draft lottery pick in favor of returning for his sophomore season in East Lansing. Instantly, Michigan State went from talented and intriguing to overloaded, retaining the alpha dog performer around which it can build a team capable of cutting down the nets in San Antonio. The 6’7” Bridges produced exactly as expected as a freshman, leading the team in scoring (16.9 points per game) and rebounding (8.3 per game) while shooting 48.6% from the floor and averaging 1.006 points per possession, good for the 83rd percentile nationally, according to Synergy Sports.
Without Bridges, the Spartans were hardly bereft. But auxiliary pieces would have had to emerge as driving forces; now those auxiliary pieces can just be exceptionally good auxiliary pieces. Nick Ward may well be an All-Big Ten forward by the end of next spring. Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston will continue to run the show; Winston could grow into a nationally elite point guard if his defense improves. Josh Langford won’t have to suddenly start producing like a former consensus top 20 recruit; he can improve from 6.9 points per game as a freshman without an excessive amount of pressure to do so. And while Michigan State surely could use an impactful first season from five-star big man recruit Jaren Jackson, the 6’10” freshman won’t have to be the center of attention.
Barring colossal injury issues, Bridges’ return made Michigan State a Final Four favorite once again.
(2) Can Ward stay on the floor?
Consider this: As a freshman, the 6’8”, 250-pound forward had a higher usage rate than Bridges (34.1% to 27.3%), averaged more shots per 40 minutes (25.9 to 23.9) and posted a better points-per-possession number (1.058 to 1.006). Or consider this: Nick Ward, per 40 minutes, averaged 28 points and 13.1 rebounds last year. He also committed 98 fouls, by far the most on the team.
Because Michigan State’s frontcourt was so limited last winter, the team’s fortunes and emotions rose and fell almost directly in relation to Ward’s ability to avoid early whistles. During games next season, the sight of Ward prematurely occupying a seat next to coaches will still register as inauspicious, but the Spartans shouldn’t be hamstrung as a result. Regularly deploying 6’6” Kenny Goins as a center and 6’4” Alvin Ellis and 6’5” Kyle Ahrens as power forwards last winter was, um, not ideal. In 2017-18, Izzo will have 6’9” Gavin Schilling back from a season lost to a knee injury. He’ll also welcome a freshman class featuring the 6’10” Jackson and 6’8”, 270-pound four-star forward Xavier Tillman.
If Izzo can pair Ward with another big to start, and then use that other big to match up with the opposition’s low-post threats or rim-protect, it might keep Ward out of harm’s way on defense and allow him to go to work on the other end.
(3) To whom does Izzo hand the keys at point guard?
Nairn is the veteran and limited whomever he guarded last season to 0.718 points per possession, the best rate among the Spartans and good for the 88th percentile nationally, per Synergy Sports. Winston is the superior playmaker and actually accrued more Win Shares than Nairn (2.3 to 1.6).
Izzo may well continue to split duties—Nairn averaged 22.8 minutes and Winston logged 20.7 last year—and it certainly is difficult to imagine any coach shunting a reliable senior point guard who guards well enough to a reserve role. In theory, Izzo could play both and attempt to replicate the double small-guard dynamic that drove multiple recent national champions. But that raises the question of who hits shots from the perimeter to keep defenses honest (Winston shot 42.3% last year, Nairn 41.7%) and it forces either Langford or a second big to come off the bench.
Much of this revolves around Winston’s progress as a defender—he allowed 0.859 PPP as a freshman, ranking in the 49th percentile nationally. Nairn will be solid in end-of-game scenarios and Michigan State can expect to get offense from the other four spots. But if Winston becomes even an above-average defender, the Spartans might benefit from the best of both worlds.