Michigan State won a lot of games last season and the Big Ten title.
Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, though, knows as well as anyone college basketball teams are measured and remembered by what they do in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans are coming off a second-round loss as a third-seeded team to 11th-seeded Syracuse in front of their fans in Detroit.
“It’s hard to look at a 30-win season and say we fell a little short, but we did,” Izzo said.
Michigan State lost a pair of young stars , Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, to the NBA and a few role-playing seniors are gone, too.
“There’s also a new sense of optimism because sometimes talent doesn’t win out over experience,” Izzo said.
Indeed, the Spartans will start a trio of juniors — Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford — and possibly a pair of seniors — Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins — after having an all-underclassmen lineup often last season. Izzo calls that refreshing.
Michigan State will find out how it stacks up against the best, opening the season against No. 1 Kansas on Nov. 6 in Indianapolis.
Ward entered his name in the NBA draft and withdrew it , choosing to work on his game in college instead of as a professional.
“They told me to work on my jump shot, my body, my conditioning,” Ward said. “Going through that is the best thing I could have done because it was a big learning experience.”
Izzo acknowledged he has had many disagreements with Ward, but said his assessment of the process earlier this year was spot on.
“His whole demeanor changed,” Izzo said. “He’s lost another 15 to 18 pounds. There were times this year he was under 240 this summer, and I was talking to him about putting weight on. But he’s one kid that going through the draft process, I really think, helped.”
Kyle Ahrens may prove to be a key player if he can stay healthy because Izzo said he’s the team’s toughest player and one of its best athletes and shooters. The redshirt junior missed all of last season after having two surgeries on his right foot. Ahrens averaged just two points a game in limited time during his first two seasons after an injury-riddled high school career that included breaking both legs and a thumb.
“It’s just a blessing to be out there and be able to sweat every day,” the 6-6 forward said. “It’s going to take me a little bit in the games to build that confidence up. I haven’t played in two years. I know I’m going to be really jittery and my adrenalin is going to be rushing through the roof, but I’m excited. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
The Spartans, who will play a 20-game Big Ten schedule for the first time, open with the top-ranked Jayhawks and will face No. 21 UCLA and may also play No. 8 North Carolina. They will also travel Louisville and Florida on their home courts.
“We’re going to see early where we’re at,” McQuaid said.
Michigan State players are well aware they haven’t advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2015, when Izzo reached the Final Four for the seventh time.
“It’s kind of something you talk about almost every day,” Goins said. “We’re trying to change that. We all want to make it, hopefully, to that third weekend.”
The Spartans signed five freshmen to scholarships and two of them, forward Aaron Henry and point guard Foster Loyer, may be to be in the rotation early in the season. Izzo said the 6-6, 210-pound Henry is physical enough to play and the 6-foot, 170-pound Loyer, who has added about 15 pounds since high school, is a player he’ll need to give Winston a break during games.
“Aaron is the most ready,” Izzo said. “I think Foster has to be ready just because of the backup to the point.”
Source: The Associated Press