Tom Izzo has had a pretty good offseason.
Yes, the Michigan State basketball head coach has had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic like everyone else, and his 2019-20 squad saw its NCAA Tournament dreams ended like everyone else, with the tournament not being played.
But when you add two four-star guards and a five-star guard to your 2021 recruiting class, as well as the consensus top player in the class of 2022 in forward Emoni Bates (who may reclassify to 2021), you’re doing pretty darn good for yourself.
Still, Izzo has a 2020-21 season to focus on now, and how he can get his Spartans back into contention in the Big Ten and nationally after saying goodbye to two potential first-round NBA draft picks in guard Cassius Winston and forward Xavier Tillman.
Can the Hall of Fame coach keep his team at a championship level despite losing that talent and contend for a fourth straight Big Ten title?
That’s The Point
The obvious question now is, who plays point guard? Winston manned the position for the last three years as well as anyone in college basketball ever. He finished his career as the Big Ten’s all-time assists leader, earning conference Player of the Year honors in 2018-19, and was as good of a clutch scorer as the Spartans have seen in a long time.
But the reality is he’s gone. So Izzo needs another leader. The early answer will likely be sophomore Rocket Watts, who played off the ball mostly last season but also played the point at times, even when Winston was in the game.
Watts averaged nine points and 1.7 assists in starting 16 games a season ago. He’s less of a natural point guard than Winston, but he can push the ball on the break and should improve his playmaking as the season goes on.
Another option is junior Foster Loyer, who has struggled in his first two years with Michigan State basketball. He was a high-scoring guard in high school, but at 6-0 and 175, he just hasn’t had the size to compete in the Big Ten.
Still, Loyer was named one of the team’s captains for this season, and Izzo has talked about him improving in the offseason.
As far as providing leadership, sixth-year senior Joshua Langford will be able to cover that, assuming he can stay healthy. The 6-5 shooting guard has not played in a game since Dec. 29, 2018, dealing with a recurring foot injury ever since.
Langford was averaging 15 points and shooting 40.3 percent from three-point range in 13 games that season before the injury, so getting him back on the court will be a big boost for the Spartans.
Most people remember Aaron Henry as the recipient of Izzo’s tirade in the huddle during an NCAA Tournament first-round game in 2019. The then-freshman shook it off and played well as the Spartans made a run to the Final Four, and his continued growth will be a key to this year’s team.
Henry flirted with the NBA after averaging 10 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists but has returned and is the returning team leader in each of those categories. Henry, a 6-6 junior, hasn’t always been as aggressive looking for his own offense as Izzo would like, but he’ll be counted on to become a team leader this season.
Henry and Gabe Brown (6.8 points) are expected to take steps forward in aggressiveness and leadership, and they have to if the Spartans are going to contend. Both have shown flashes in their first two seasons but have to be more consistent with their output.
There’s also plenty of depth up front, with sophomore Malik Hall and juniors Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham all expected to contribute more this season.
While there is a lot of returning talent for Izzo, the key to the Spartans staying atop the Big Ten could be 6-9 junior forward Joey Hauser. After sitting out a year following his transfer from Marquette (one of the few transfers in college basketball not to get a waiver), Hauser is expected to step into the starting lineup and provide some outside shooting and toughness up front.
Hauser, whose brother transferred to Virginia at the same time, started 31 games at Marquette, averaging 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds and shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range. He’s spent a year soaking up Izzo’s system and is itching to get back on the court.
So, what can we expect from the Spartans this season? Remember, the last time they lost two first-round draft picks (Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr.), they went to the Final Four the next season. Of course, that was with Winston at the point.
An Izzo-coached team can never be counted out, especially by the end of the season. Early on, the Spartans could struggle, especially in close games, as they figure out who their offensive leaders are.
But there’s too much talent — on the court and on the sideline — for Michigan State basketball to fall too far. Look for the Spartans to be in the hunt in the season’s final weeks and be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.