Top Storylines For Spartan Cagers (that's an old fashioned term for 'basketball team')

Top Storylines For Spartan Cagers (that's an old fashioned term for 'basketball team')

Basketball

Top Storylines For Spartan Cagers (that's an old fashioned term for 'basketball team')

Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans have an exhibition and a scrimmage under their belts as they prepare for yet another attempt to get back to college basketball’s promised land and deliver Izzo his second national championship. SpartansWire takes a look at just a few of the more interesting storylines as the Spartans get ready to tip off the season.

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The calendar has officially flipped to November.

While Mark Dantonio’s Spartans are in the process of fighting towards yet another successful season on the gridiron, Tom Izzo is readying his troops for another march through a typically grueling schedule that has one goal in mind – to cut down the nets on the final Monday night of the season.

Long ago Izzo set the standard for his basketball program and that standard features one main goal as every season begins: winning the whole shebang.

To a certain extent, Izzo has become a victim of his own success and last year’s far-too-early exit from the NCAA Tournament was a pretty good example of this.

The 30-4 Spartans got up on the first Sunday morning of the tournament fully expecting to overcome Jim Boeheim’s infamous 2-3 matchup zone and move on to another Sweet Sixteen since the return of Miles Bridges combined with the special talent up and down the roster made the Final Four an assumption.

And, as is often the case with assumptions, Izzo and his Spartans were left to face realities they hadn’t considered after Boeheim’s zone was too much for Michigan State and the Orange ended the season for Bridges and his gang after a 55-53 grinder.

Bridges and Jaren Jackson, Jr, as expected, left for the greener pastures of the NBA.

Spartan fans, meanwhile, are preparing for the possibility of another run to the Final Four.

The last three tournaments haven’t been kind to Izzo after he had established to the college basketball world that the month of March belonged to him.

The 2016 loss to Middle Tennessee State will forever go down as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament with the 15th seeded Blue Raiders upending the 2-seeded Spartans in shockingly dominant fashion.

But last season’s frustrating end that came against that 2-3 matchup zone might rankle Spartans even more due to the sheer firepower Izzo had at his disposal.

And so here Izzo is, entering his 24th season as the head Spartan and he’s finally sounding as if he’s turned the page on all of the challenges of last season.

He’s sounding like the guy who is going to work tirelessly for the next five months is his pursuit of another national title while doing all he can to make the experience for his players valuable and memorable.

What are some of the bigger storylines as the Spartans get ready to tip off another season?

NICK WARD

The 6’8″ junior Spartan is back after a quick flirtation with the NBA.

Give Ward credit for testing the waters, hearing that he still had some work to do, and putting his head down while getting back to work after realizing the NBA is still a year away.

Ward looks and sounds good.

He sounds like a guy who is grateful for his place in the program and that he’s ready to take full advantage of an opportunity to improve his chances at reaching his own, personal dreams.

And, the scuttlebutt is that he’s worked his butt off and improved in all phases of his game.

Someone even said that he “got up early and worked out.”

When I was in college, “getting up early” meant I was up in time for lunch.

What does “getting up early” mean for Nick Ward?

If he’s improved his mid-range jumper, continued to enhance an already-powerful low-post ability, and gotten better at defending off the ball screen, it won’t matter to anyone if “getting up early” means rolling out of bed at 2p.

One key question regarding Ward as he becomes a true focal point of the team is his stamina and durability.

At 240 pounds, he better be durable enough to power his way through the whole season while increasing his minutes.

Last season he was on the floor for about 19 minutes a game.

Izzo doesn’t want or need Ward out there 35 minutes – but how about 25?

Whether Ward wants to become another Spartan to go on to the NBA or not, if he wants to leave a legacy, he will have to commit himself to becoming a force to be reckoned with every minute he’s on the court rather than being a solid contributor.

GUARDS

Even with the loss of Miles Bridges, Michigan State is loaded in the backcourt.

Cassius Winston finished his sophomore season as the Big Ten’s top 3-point shooter.

Perhaps even more importantly, Winston finished the year second in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Limiting turnovers, of course, will be essential as Winston becomes the true floor general.

There aren’t too many people who don’t think of Winston – 6’1″, 185 pounds – as a budding star and he’s in a position now where he can elevate his entire profile by grabbing the team by the lapels and horns and bootstraps and any other cliched areas and leading it to another Big Ten Championship – and much more.

On paper, Winston is the straw that stirs this Spartan cocktail – will he obsessively lead and dominate and stir this team the way Izzo needs him to?

Meanwhile, after a few years of solid productivity from Matt McQuaid, can the 6’5″ senior swingman elevate his game in a way that takes some of the pressure off of Winston and forces teams to treat McQuaid like an offensive weapon that can do damage from anywhere on the court?

Joshua Langford enters his junior year having been a bit enigmatic, particularly late last season.

Langford – at 6’5″ and 210 pounds – appears to have all of the tools to be another Jason Richardson.

Can he also elevate his all-around game so that people forget about him being enigmatic and appearing to, sometimes, get a little lost?

For each of these guys, it starts on the defensive side of the ball.

If each of them can turn into Travis Walton-type of defenders – a tall order – Izzo and Spartan fans will notice, the team will benefit greatly, and their offensive output will surely improve.

EXPERIENCE

With the loss of the two young superstars, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, Jr, the Spartans won’t have NBA-lottery-pick talent on the floor at all times.

Izzo recently said that sometimes experience can make up a bit for a loss in overall young talent.

And, the freshman class that Izzo hauled in might turn out to provide immediate support that may have more star power than anticipated.

In the meantime, the experience of Michigan State’s featured contributors can be – and should be – one of the main components of a team with a high ceiling.

Winston, Ward, Langford, McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Kyle Aherns (who missed all of last season with a foot injury), Xavier Tillman – these guys all shave every morning, they all know how to get from their apartments to the Breslin Center, and they know how to win on the road in Big Ten venues that are hornets’ nests.

FRESHMEN CLASS

Izzo brought in a good class that has plenty of potential to become one of the better classes over Izzo’s tenure.

Aaron Henry is a 6’6″ wing and he’ll likely be a part of the playing group right away.

At 6’0″ and 170 pounds, guard Foster Loyer will need to get bigger, stronger, and tougher in a hurry because he has the skills to contribute to making sure Cassius Winston gets the breathers he will need in order to be fresh when mid-February rolls around.

Marcus Bingham is 6’11” and Gabe Brown is 6’7″ – they’re big men with plenty of upside.

Brown can shoot but Bingham is 215 pounds and Izzo is still contemplating the option of redshirting Bingham and locking him in the weight room all year so he can put on enough beef to be a true Spartan big man.

Thomas Kithier missed all of last season while at Clarkston due to being ineligible with all of that mumbo jumbo – what can he bring to the table?

There is a nifty amount of talent in this class and Izzo will need some of these guys to develop quickly.

Henry and Loyer are likely to be the most impactful.

SCHEDULE

I’ve never quite understood how and why Izzo has had a tendency to complain a bit, from time to time, about the rigors of the tough schedule the Spartans put themselves through every year when he’s the one who schedules the games in the first place.

Yes, he’s right in maintaining the theory that the approach to scheduling toughens up the team and prepares it for the challenges that will come deep in the Big Ten season and every moment of March.

Last season seemed to be one of the few when the Spartans weren’t needing to fight at least a little bit towards the end of the regular season to enhance their profile as Selection Sunday neared.

As long as the schedule is brutally tough like it is every year, am I allowed to say that it’d be nice if the Spartans won some of these high profile battles every once in a while?

Tipping off the season against #1 Kansas in the Champions Classic is fun and exciting and it sure does continue to raise the Spartans’ profile.

Winning the game would be nice.

Also on the schedule is #21 UCLA at the Las Vegas Invitational.

While in Las Vegas, the Spartans might end up playing their way into a matchup against #8 North Carolina.

Am I allowed to say that losing to Roy Williams is a lot like losing to the kid who sits in the front row in every class, brings an apple to every teacher every morning, wears a sweater vest to school, and asks everyone else how they did on the test while walking out of the classroom even though he knows everyone else was at Doyle’s house the previous night since Doyle’s parents are out of town all week?

Tough road challenges against Louisville and Florida add to the slate.

As usual, after Michigan State wraps up its non-conference lineup, it gets to rest for about ten minutes before diving into the grind of the Big Ten.

And, don’t forget – the Big Ten regular season includes 20 games now.

Am I allowed to say that losing twice in a season to the school that allowed the Fab Five to spit on and rub their asses on the Block S at midcourt after a victory in 1992 is not acceptable?

Am I allowed to point out to the John U. Bacon that long before Devin Bush redefined awful, temper-tantrum-laced, six-year old, ugly, and, yes, juvenile behavior, the Fab Five did the exact same thing on Jud’s court at the Breslin Center?

Am I allowed to reiterate what I said here –

https://spartanswire.com/2018/10/26/stormtrooper-gate-one-last-history-lesson-for-now/

That all of the behavior from the people who are a part of that institution is learned and a part of that institution’s DNA?

Am I allowed to speculate that Tom Izzo is acutely aware of every nuance of the nonsense that happened at Spartan Stadium a few weeks ago and that Izzo has Mark Dantonio’s back?

GET BACK TO MARCHING

Izzo has probably been reminding his team that the Spartans have been dispatched from the NCAA Tournament before the second weekend began the last three years.

That upset at the hands of Middle Tennessee State in 2016 – it’s probably fair to say that Michigan State had been pretty fortunate to avoid any face plants when we consider that just about all of the big boys around the country have had losses that they’d rather not be reminded of.

Michigan State was due for laying an egg.

And that’s partly why last season’s loss to Syracuse might be a little tougher to for a lot of Spartans to think about.

March of 2015 was the last time Izzo led his program back to the Final Four – it was his 7th.

That seems like a long time ago now that we’re sitting here with the 2018-2019 season about to start.

Can Izzo rev up the engines and get back to waving his magic wand around when March arrives?

Michigan State enters the season #10 in both the AP and Coaches Polls.

The fact that the team is slightly under the radar – particularly when compared to a year ago at this time – might give Izzo a little bit of relief.

However, Izzo is driven by the slights and by being overlooked (as much as he and his program can be overlooked considering the success over the last 23 seasons).

It’s safe to speculate that he’s ready to prove that the last three tournaments have been the exception to the rule and that he still does have a reason to claim the month of March as his.

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