2017 NCAA Tournament: Roundtable Q&A with Michigan State beat writers

Michigan State is deeper than freshman star Miles Bridges, but he's quite a special talent. (Getty Images)

Michigan State is deeper than freshman star Miles Bridges, but he’s quite a special talent. (Getty Images)

[Larranaga, Canes disrespected by comments]

[Nuggets about the Miami-Michigan State matchup]

Here at Canes Watch we haven’t seen too many minutes of Michigan State basketball this season.

You know who has? Matt Charboneau, who covers MSU football and basketball for the Detroit News, and Chris Solari, who handles the same duties at the Detroit Free Press.

They were kind enough to answer a few questions via email. Here are their responses in full.

Q: What are the strengths of Michigan State’s offense? Any glaring weaknesses? 

Charboneau: A streaky offensive team that finished fourth in the Big Ten in both field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage. Michigan State is at its best when it’s getting production from wing players not named Miles Bridges, the team’s leading scorer. That has been especially difficult away from home where senior Alvin Ellis, sophomore Matt McQuaid and freshman Joshua Langford have struggled. Bridges has been as consistent as anyone and Nick Ward is a load in the post. But getting help from somewhere else has been the wild card all season. If any of those wings or freshman point guard Cassius Winston can find any consistency, MSU’s offense can get on a roll. The biggest offensive weakness is anytime junior guard Tum Tum Nairn and sophomore forward Kenny Goins are on the court together. Both are solid defenders but bring little to the offensive end.

Solari: MSU is at its best when it pushes the pace in transition, in large part because of their lack of size and depth in the post. Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston are each different styles of point guards, with the veteran Nairn a north-and-south jet and freshman Winston a bob-and-weave freestyler with the ball. The focal point is obviously Miles Bridges, who can score outside and above the rim with the nation’s best, but freshman classmate Nick Ward provides an in-the-paint presence when MSU is operating in the half-court. There also are complementary scorers in Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid and Alvin Ellis, all of whom have been streaky but can hit from deep. The weaknesses are the Spartans’ propensity to turn the ball over, which has gradually been curtailed in recent weeks, and their reliance on the three-point shot. It’s a team that can hit from outside. But if they aren’t falling, like against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, MSU can get in trouble. Nairn and Kenny Goins aren’t offensive producers, which sometimes gets the Spartans playing 4-on-5 or 3-on-5 if they’re on the court together.

Q: Same questions about the defense, please. 

Charboneau: Michigan State has been a solid defensive team most of the season and ranks 34th in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive rankings. Ward and Bridges have been very good at blocking shots despite not being as big as many of their opponents and Nairn, although a liability on offense, is a solid on-ball defender. Where MSU struggles is on ball screens against quick, decisive guards. As good as Nairn is, Winston has been a work in progress. Combined with Ward struggles on the ball screen, it’s a spot the Spartans can be exploited. And, obviously, any team that is deep up front and has low-post scoring options is a challenge for the smaller Spartans.

SolariTom Izzo’s program prides itself in defense and rebounding. Having four freshmen and three sophomores playing so many minutes has been maddening to him with the learning curve for young players. So much of how MSU will fare depends on the defense of Ward and Winston, rookies who have struggled at times to check opponents. Ward can block shots and wall up in the post, but he struggles with high ball screens. Winston has issues staying in front of his man on the perimeter and also has issues getting over perimeter screens and with switches. Bridges translates his jumping ability on defense into blocked shots. McQuaid, Ellis and Langford all have their strengths as defenders on the perimeter. Foul trouble can be an issue – and with Bridges, Ward and Goins as the only players 6-foot-6 or taller, that can become problematic if two or all of them start picking up whistles.

Q: What’s the best way to slow down Bridges?

Charboneau: Force anyone else to beat you. If that means keeping five sets of eyes on Bridges, then so be it. When he does get the ball, keeping him out of the lane is key. He’s a decent shooter but not great. He causes his most damage when he’s able to attack the basket and has improved his post moves. He has the ability to score 30 any given night, but if teams make it hard for him to get many touches, sometimes frustration mounts and the forced shots can follow.

Solari: Hope he goes to the NBA? In all honesty, the best way to stop Bridges is to run a number of players at him from a variety of angles and force him to give up the ball. The more he’s forced into a post-up game in a packed paint, the less damage he can do above the rim and from the three-point arc. He’s going to get his points, though, and he’s continued to add driving and getting fouled to his repertoire. And always, always keep an eye on him for a lob – he can catch and throw down almost any alley-oop pass thrown his way.

Q: Has Michigan State’s heralded freshman class met expectations?

Charboneau: In many cases, yes. Now, it’s not the sort of expectations they have every year at Kentucky, but they’ve been pretty good, nonetheless. Bridges has been everything most expected and was named Big Ten freshman of the year. Ward has been the big surprise. He cut tons of weight before the season and became one of the best scoring bigs in the conference. He struggles at times on defense and with fouls, but he’s a load to contain. Winston and Langford have been more up and down. Winston has had moments where he controls the offense like a pro but other times where he forces plays and turns the ball over. Langford was slowed by a hamstring injury early in the season and has just been getting into the swing of things the last month or so. Both have the ability to score in bunches, however, knowing when that might come has been tough to gauge.

Solari: Objectively they have, simply based on the number of points, rebounds, blocks and minutes they’ve provided this season. Any other year, these type of numbers from all four freshmen would be heralded. But because this is the first time Izzo has had this many young players as the focal point of his team, the team’s ups and downs obscure just how special their collective production has been. But when you’re seeing Bridges and Ward mentioned in the same breath with Magic Johnson and Jay Vincent, as well as some of the other program greats who made immediate impacts like this, you realize how special this group has been.

Q: How have the Spartans weathered the loss of Eron Harris

Charboneau: Tough to say on this one. Harris was expected to be much more of a scorer than he was, instead playing inconsistently on the offensive end. But that’s not to say he isn’t missed. Just having the threat of his offense mattered and he was one of the better defenders that was good at directing the young players. He’s still with the team and has been an emotional lift for the freshmen that bonded with him quickly last summer.

Solari: Harris’ injury has been a rallying point, but his loss mainly has been felt on the defensive end. He was a glue guy there after buying in to Izzo’s concepts in his first season a year ago after transferring from West Virginia. His point production in Big Ten play had dropped off considerably, and he at times tried to do too much offensively, especially when Bridges was out with a foot injury. But there’s no question his presence would be vital in helping to guard Miami’s bigger guards. The more significant injuries happened in October, with Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter suffering season-ending knee injuries. That has left MSU down a pair of 6-9 veterans, Schilling a fourth-year senior and Carter a UNLV grad transfer. Losing those two has handcuffed Izzo with his post rotation and forces Goins to play out of position as a 6-6 center in tandem with 6-8 Ward.

Q: The Middle Tennessee loss seems like a natural rallying point for this year’s tournament, but with freshmen leading the way, does this year’s team look back on it? Is it spoken about?

Charboneau: It’s not talked about much. Most of these guys weren’t on the team and only Ellis and Nairn remain as guys that were part of the rotation in both seasons. If MSU was once again a favorite to win it all, maybe the Middle Tennessee loss would be a bigger rallying cry. But this team is looking to get any win it can, so that is much more their focus than last year’s loss.

Solari: It’s very much a forgotten entity for these players, simply because this team has had its own set of challenges and circumstances. Considering only three players in the nine-man rotation saw significant minutes during that game, anything they glean from it will be coming from Denzel Valentine and that group who experienced the upset as their final collegiate game.

 

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