Welcome Back, Basketball: Michigan State Spartans

Welcome to Palestra Back’s Season Preview! All week we’ll be highlighting some of the most fascinating teams in college basketball. These are the best teams or the highest ranked teams, just the handful that we think you’ll want to have an extra eye on over the next few months. 

Why Do We Care?

Sparty is always one of the key teams to watch in college basketball. Even when the talent or team chemistry is lacking, Tom Izzo works his black magic and turns Michigan State into a scary team in March.

This year? The talent is definitely there. The sky is the limit. Michigan State was the last Big Ten team to win a championship, all the way back in 2000! That streak could end this season.

Who is Gone?

Eron Harris graduated after a career that spanned two schools, five years, and tons of relevant moments. He was the kind of player who made college basketball fun. Role players Matt Van Dyk and Alvin Ellis also earned their degrees, opening more minutes for the talented youngsters Tom Izzo spent most of last year preparing for primetime.

Who is Back?

The headliner here is Miles Bridges, who likely would have been a lottery pick in June. Looking at how the draft played out, Bridges could have gone as early as the tenth pick, instead he returns to school. Many people thought Bridges represented a new day for the Michigan State program, as the first truly high profile, likely one-and-done recruit to commit to East Lansing (with apologies to Deyonta Davis). Something about Izzo and the Spartan culture must have appealed to Bridges though, bringing him back as a favorite for National Player of the Year.

His freshman year had its ups and downs. He struggled with an injury, missing seven games midseason and hobbling through two more upon his return. When he was healthy and on the floor, Bridges was electric. He’s among the most athletic players in the nation, capable of rim rocking dunks and other highlight plays. When the Spartans played Penn State at the Palestra, he recorded a blocked shot 2 feet above the rim that made my eyes explode from my seat 150 feet away.

In all, he averaged 17 points and 8 boards as a freshman in the Big Ten. He’s built like a young Charles Barkley, moves like Blake Griffin, and shot 39 percent from outside the arc. He may well be the best player in the NCAA.

Also returning is behemoth center Nick Ward. The 6’8, 245 pound sophomore is a beast on the block (and that weight feels a bit generous if you ask me, he’s built like a vending machine). He entered last season a tad on the raw side, but showed some real flashes of brilliance. He has surprisingly soft hands and nimble footwork for his size. Ward showcased a variety of post-moves that felt like blasts from the past. Inside the paint, he left defenders helpless, drawing 8.8 fouls per 40 minutes (2nd most in the nation). The key for Ward is staying on the court. His conditioning never got to a point where he could stay in games for long stretches, though he headed to the bench with foul trouble just as often. Ward collected four or more fouls in 11 games last season. He’ll need to clean that up to be productive this year.

The rest of the Spartans’ rotation rounds out nicely into logical roles. Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn is still in our lives as the veteran point guard presence with Cassius Winston offering a more risk-reward option at that position. The two offer a nice compliment to one another on a nightly basis. Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid are on the wings to slash and shoot on open looks. Inside the paint, Kenny Goins and Gavin Schilling are strong rotation bigs. If anything, the worst thing about the Spartans roster will be juggling everyone’s minutes.

Who is New?

The fight for minutes gets even tougher when you include the freshman on the Michigan State roster.

Jaren Jackson Jr. (which is a fantastic basketball name) should have no worries about finding the court, given his immense talents. He’s a 6’11 stretch four who can do it all offensively. Jackson was ranked 2nd among power forwards by ESPN Recruiting, giving Izzo even more talent in his frontcourt. Teams with Michigan State on the schedule could start preparing for a Ward-Jackson-Bridges lineup today and not find any way to stop them.

Izzo also can count on another 6’11 freshman, Xavier Tillman. He’s a more traditional big man than Jackson, adding more size to a team already busting at the seams with bigs to wear you down.

Rankings Rundown

AP Poll: #2

Coaches Poll: #2

KenPom: #10

Excitement for this Spartan team is sky high. They enter the season as the favorites in the Big Ten, with eyes on a run to the Final Four. No team is as deep as Michigan State.

Big Games on the Schedule

Is it too early to set my DVR for Duke-Michigan State on November 14? Why am I setting my DVR if I’m definitely going to watch the game live? I’LL WATCH IT TWICE. INJECT THAT GAME INTO MY VEINS. GRIND IT UP INTO A POWDER AND MAKE ME A PROTEIN SHAKE WITH IT.

Sparty also has a date with Notre Dame on 11/30 as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.


Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com

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