A blessing and a curse.
That is about the only way to describe Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo’s insistence on playing only the best of the best to start every season. It usually pans out for Izzo and his squad as getting big game experience early alleviates some of the pressure down the line.
With that being said, 0-1 is never a good feeling.
While Kansas is definitely not the end-all-be-all for the Spartans this season, the No. 1 overall Jayhawks sure are a hell of a way to open it. The same factors that will play into MSU’s success in 2018-19 will play a huge part on Nov. 6.
Winning with Winston
For the Spartans to live up to expectations this season, MSU will need junior Cassius Winston to lead the way for a mostly-inexperienced core of guards.
Outside of Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid, two juniors, the Spartans will be relying on freshmen to pick up the slack. Freshman Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown look like they will slide between shooting guard and small forward throughout the year and their fellow freshman Foster Loyer will have opportunities at a backup point guard.
All of this means that Winston and Langford will have to show up each and every night to set the example for the rest of the guards.
Winston was 0.3 3-point percentage points away from a ridiculous 50-50-90 line in 2017-18 and he will have to continue those lines of efficiency in 2018-19. On top of being one of the most efficient point guards, he also led the Big Ten in assists at 6.9 a game and led the country in assist percentage.
Although, that is not to say his competition is lacking.
Winston will be challenged almost every night in the Big Ten by guards like Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards, Charles Matthews and Anthony Cowan Jr. With names like these, Winston will need to continue to play like an All-Big Ten point guard every single night.
The beginning of the season will not be any different. Kansas’ highly touted freshman point guard Devon Dotson is already showing his potential with his persistence and athleticism on the defensive end. On offense the same is true, showing a willingness to get his teammates involved and showing a knack for getting to the basket in the Jayhawks’ early scrimmages and exhibition contests.
All of this to say, Winston needs to balance his scoring and playmaking this season. He has the experience to know when to pick his spots and get his teammates involved. Now, without the talent the Spartans have had in the past, he also has to know when to take over when it matters most.
Winston can score from anywhere on the floor, but the timing of his buckets will be the difference for the Spartans to be the best they can be.
Ward holds the key
There have been two things present on Izzo’s greatest teams: a great point guard and a menacing paint presence.
Junior Nick Ward definitely has the potential to be that.
The question is now, instead; can Ward be the best big man on a great team?
Ward has showed that in spurts through his first two seasons in East Lansing. After prepping for the NBA Draft, deciding to return to school and shaping his body and game to what he heard from scouts, now Ward needs to show he can be great in more than spurts.
And there is no time better than the present.
The Jayhawks also have a great center, Udoka Azubuike who would be a huge challenge for Ward in the past. Azubuike’s biggest impact on offense is on over-the-top lobs and back cuts to the basket. These are the areas where Ward’s defense has been caught lacking in the past.
If Ward has not shed the habit, then he could easily be in foul trouble early, allowing the 7-foot tall Azubuike to have a field day with the other Spartan bigs.
If Ward has indeed improved his attention to detail on the defensive end, the opposite could be true.
Ward’s presence in the low post as a scorer could cause fits for Azubuike and the Kansas defense. If Ward plays clean defense and bodies up Kansas on offense, Azubuike could be the one riding the bench plagued with fouls and Ward will take advantage of the inexperience behind him.
How Winston fairs against the aggressive Dotson and the matchup in the paint – Ward versus Azubuike – will most likely decide if MSU starts the season 1-0 or 0-1.
How effective Winston and Ward are as crucial pieces will decide what is in store for a Spartan squad that wants to make a deep run into March.
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