Michigan State will never be accused of sneaking up on the college basketball world. Among the elites of college basketball, the Spartans deserve the hype.
And they’re certainly getting it going into the 2017-18 season. Coming off a 20-win season and an NCAA Tournament berth that ended in the second round, coach Tom Izzo’s team now has the depth in the post it needed a year ago. With Nick Ward entering his sophomore season, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter returning from knee injuries and 5-star recruit Jaren Jackson Jr. taking the court as a freshman, the stacked Spartans have garnered a well-deserved No. 2 ranking.
And let’s not forget about Miles Bridges, the super sophomore who has landed just about every preseason honor possible. Most see him as the best player in the country — not a bad foundation for the team. So as we run down five things Michigan State needs to reach its eighth Final Four under Izzo, let’s start with the superstar.
1. An All-America season from Miles Bridges on the wing
We will learn a lot more about Miles Bridges’ NBA potential this season than last, as Michigan State’s loaded frontcourt will move him from the 4 to the 3 spot. Playing exclusively on the wing, Bridges needs to show improved ball handling and consistent outside shooting. In three exhibition games, he shot just 3 of 15 from 3-point range, but he also turned the ball over only 4 times. The shooting should improve greatly; Bridges shot 38.9 percent from long range a year ago.
2. Solid defense from Cassius Winston
“He needs to be an adequate defender,” Izzo said of his sophomore point guard in October. Not great. Adequate. And being less than that kept Winston off the floor too often in 2016-17 when Michigan State needed his creativity and vision on offense. His playing ability is obvious, as evidenced by his 5.2 assists in 20.7 minutes per game. Now he’s being hailed as the best shooter on the team. If he can play solid defense, Winston should see a lot more minutes this season, and the Spartans will benefit.
3. Consistent inside-out game from Jaren Jackson Jr.
The word with Jaren Jackson Jr. is “potential.” With 6-foot-11 height and incredible length, plus shooting range that extends beyond the arc, he looks like a more highly touted NBA prospect than even Bridges. But can that potential turn into enough productivity as a freshman to make Michigan State worthy of the hype? So far, it looks like it can. Jackson has shown his ability to drive to the rim and finish thunderously, hit from outside, serve as a rim protector and gobble up rebounds. He’ll become a household name soon, if he isn’t one already.
4. Good shooting
This will make or break Michigan State on a game-by-game basis. When the Spartans aren’t hitting shots, things can snowball pretty quickly. Sophomore guard Josh Langford has a formidable offensive arsenal and can score in a lot of different ways, but he really struggled to make shots during the preseason. Bridges, as noted, will open up a lot of other things if he can knock down some jumpers. And if players such as Jackson and Kenny Goins can step out and give you that outside scoring threat as well, these Spartans will be tough to contain.
5. A little bit of luck
Let’s be honest here. Sure, the ultimate goals are a Final Four and a national championship, but a Big Ten regular-season title is a lot more indicative of a successful season. To win in the NCAA Tournament, you have to get hot at the right time. The best team often doesn’t. One of the toughest parts of college coaching is making sure your team peaks in March. Izzo has done a good job of that, and it will once again be the challenge this year. Injuries will play a big part in that. Michigan State already has lost backup wing Kyle Ahrens for an extended period of time ― surgery on his right foot is being discussed ― and the Spartans can’t afford to be bitten by the injury bug again.
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