Blogger Spotlight: Duke’s defense, potential and the Devil nobody hates

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Once again, Duke’s doing its thing in college hoops. The Devils are a Top 10 mainstay, feature an offense that can stroke the 3 and a post players who focus on rebounding and ensuring those perimeter shooters get their shots.

And in case you missed it, they’re also atop the ACC standings, tied with Florida State.

So what await coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team the rest of the season. I asked Adam Rowe, the founder and editor at Duke Hoop Blog for analysis of the season thus far and insight to what’s ahead.

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Q: Does this feel like a Top 10 team? The Devils are 18-3, but sure seem to catch a lot of grief, even before the home loss to FSU. (Coulda been worse, though. Coulda been on the road by 33.) Heck, even Coach K wasn’t overly pleased after Saturday’s win against St. John’s. This is just part of Duke basketball, right?

A: Based on their body of work, the 2012 version of the Duke Blue Devils absolutely feels like a Top 10 team. After losing seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, along with No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Kyrie Irving, this team had serious scoring, assisting, and most importantly leadership voids entering November.

The trips to China and Dubai in August certainly helped mold the team’s chemistry and allowed Austin Rivers and Michael Gbinije to assimilate into post-high school basketball more quickly, but this was still a team searching for an identity heading into their Nov. 11 game against Belmont at home. Since that one-point win, the team played a ridiculous non-conference schedule (tops according to kenpom.com, RPI) beating teams currently ranked five, 11, and 21, all at neutral sites. They also got a win over 19th-ranked Virginia in their second ACC game. I don’t see any other teams in the polls with that kind of record. Sure, they tripped up against Florida State, but the Devils didn’t look bad doing it.

As far as getting grief, we are talking about Duke here. There is no in between with this team. You either think Mike Krzyzewski is the devil incarnate or that Christian Laettner’s shot against Kentucky was guided by supernatural beings.

Q: What’s behind the defensive issues? Can they be fixed?

A: Duke has never finished below 20th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive rankings (I’m a big tempo-free guy if you haven’t noticed) yet this year they sit at 84. I think there are a number of reasons that can be extrapolated for this team’s propensity to give up points, but no magic bullet.

We can go back to the strength of schedule that Duke has played and point to that as a reason. We’ll stick with kenpom.com here for a standard, and see that Duke’s opponents boast college basketball’s third-toughest offenses. This is even including Virginia, who sits at 95. Well, Alabama is the only other team to have faced a Top 5 offensive schedule to be ranked in the KenPom Top 40.

Moving beyond their opponents and concentrating on Duke, there is clearly something missing on the defensive side of the ball. Much has been made of Duke’s perimeter defense and it certainly was an issue heading into the season. We are actually taking part in the Project Defensive Scoresheet Project initiated by Luke Winn and David Hess. Hopefully, through analyzing Duke’s defense by a number of metrics, we will be able to show a much clearer picture of what/who is causing the drop in Duke’s defense. You can see the first installment here, with the Western Michigan game.

Q: Even if the defense does have issues, the offense is as good as any in recent seasons. Andre Dawkins is a stone-cold killer, Austin Rivers has his sick crossover, Seth Curry’s due for a huge day and the Plumlees are the kings of second-chance points and alley-oops. But does it seem like Ryan Kelly should get more looks? Or is he getting the right amount of shots for his game? 

A: Ryan tends to play somewhat of a quiet game, so you may not notice the shots that Ryan is able to get. He’s tied for third on the team with Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins at 149 shots on the season. If you look at these charts from Statsheet.com (deselect the previous two years to see just this year’s) you can see that Ryan is getting 21.3 percent of Duke’s shots while participating in 21.9 percent of the possessions.

If anything, Duke should look to get Ryan more open behind the 3-point line as he is the most accurate shooter there by a wide margin at 47.2 percent. For one reason or another, he has only taken 53 three-pointers compared to 110 for Andre Dawkins, 87 for Seth Curry, and 73 for Austin Rivers.

Q: Rate Rivers’ season. Few freshmen came in with more hype. How’s he done?

source: APA: Austin started off the year outstanding, and even most of the his harshest critics (I’m looking at you, Sebastian Pruiti) can admit that. While his offensive production has fallen off as defenses have become more keyed on him, he is still a net positive player for Duke. His +/- of +200 points while he’s on the court makes him worth 10.5 positive points for his team. (His full game log is here.)

Coach K decided to bench Rivers for the start of the Wake Forest game on Jan. 19 but that game he dropped 20 points on 32 minutes. He has played 38 minutes in the two games afterwards and scored 19 and 10, respectively. Like any freshman, he’s going through growing pains but with his immense talent and ability and the foundation of a lifetime around the game of basketball, I expect him to be playing his best basketball in the spring.

Q: Is Tyler Thornton underrated as a point guard? Seems to me that the guys they’ve tried – Curry, Rivers – and hope blossom as a PG – Quinn Cook – have been inconsistent. Meanwhile, Thornton’s kinda like Jon Scheyer, only with a defensive emphasis. Duke doesn’t really miss a beat with Thornton in there, but the general consensus is that things could be better.

A: I think it’s easy to say that Tyler Thornton is underrated in everything he does as he’s not really rated by anyone, ever. He knew his role at Duke was to come in and be a four-year player. The fact that he’s contributing offensively as early as he is can be attributed to an extremely high level of character and work ethic. He is generally a steadying hand as the lead guard, doesn’t take a whole lot of risks, and can knock down an outside shot every once in a while.

As a point guard, Tyler is not going to lead a fast break or cut through a defense to drive, draw, and dish but he does give the team calm. A lot of people talk about Tyler’s defensive prowess, but his strength there lies in his help defense and ability to jump passing lanes. He, like all of Duke guards, have a tendency to get beat by their men on the perimeter.

Q: Well then, I’ll be sure to stop talking about Thornton on defense (musta been a default phrase). Is anyone on Duke worth much on defense? Say I need someone to check Harrison Barnes. Who’s it gonna be?

A: A lot of people talk about Tyler as a defensive stopper. I’m not exactly sure where that observation came from (although he does have Duke’s best stop% at 55.3 percent.) It probably comes from the fact the he is an in-your-face type player and is relentless. As I said earlier, he is a really good off the ball defender, but I wouldn’t call him a stopper, per se.

Duke’s defense has been an issue all year, but the guards have been shown to get blown by quite regularly. Whether that’s a function of an overplay style or lack of lateral quickness or mental lapses is a matter of debate, but it is definitely an issue compared to other years.

Barnes is one of those guys who will give Duke matchup problems as there is nobody on the team with his physical attributes. Josh Hairston did show an ability to stop Draymond Green when Duke played Michigan State, but Barnes has much more ability as a shooter than Green. It will be interesting to see who picks him up. Andre Dawkins played him pretty tight in the ACC Tournament last year. Maybe he can replicate that success.

Q: I was among those who wrote about the declining attendance among the Cameron Crazies. It’s not something that’s specific to Duke, but – like most everything else related to Duke hoops – you guys probably take more hits on this because of the Crazies’ rep and because it’s Duke. Is there anything regarding Duke you do think gets a fair shake?

A: There are certain writers that give Duke a fair shake, but for the most part they use Duke to get more page views, which is what we are all in this business for. As I said above, Duke is the most polarizing team in college basketball (maybe college sports). There’s a reason the game against Butler was the highest rated of the 20 years prior. I think you, Jeff Eisenberg, Luke Winn and a few others give Duke a fair look but there are certainly some who don’t.

Q: Twitter segue: How often do people pick fights with you in that medium? And vice versa?

A: I get trash talked quite a bit, especially after Duke loses. At first I responded, but I know now that people use the cloak of anonymity for role play. I’ll either ignore it now or simply block the person. I do talk trash, but only if it’s people I interact with on a regular basis.

Q: Everyone loves to hate Duke players. Is there a guy who non-Duke fans love? Grant Hill comes to mind.

source: APA: Grant Hill is a guy nobody can hate but Nolan Smith is the one that immediately pops into my mind.

Some friends and I ran a marketing campaign to get Nolan the National Player of the Year Award last year, and even UNC fans were commenting about how much they liked him and wanted to see him succeed. I think for Nolan, putting himself out there like he did in the “Lessons From My Father” article really humanized him to a point where people could actually see him as a person and not just as a basketball player. That, and his outgoing personality really endeared him to a lot of Duke fans, but also non-Duke fans as well. I hope that he can continue to stay in the spotlight as he has a lot of good to show the world off the court.

Q: How’s the response been to Duke Hoop Blog? Is there a day in the future when that’s your only job?

A: I feel like I’ve been blessed to have a really good response from the site. I started it one night when my wife went out on her bachelorette weekend and I was sitting around the house with nothing to do. It was more of a hobby than anything. I wrote a few articles that got some recognition, started tweeting (there really wasn’t a Duke fan presence on Twitter at the time I started but there definitely is now), and now I have four writers who contribute to the site and am getting around 30,000 hits per day. I’m lucky for those guys (follow them on twitter @thedevilwolf, @ClykinsBlog, @R_Horn21, @Bleed_DukeBlue1) because I have a full time job, I’m married, have a social life, and am taking 12 hours of classes to change careers. Without their contributions, this site would not be alive today.

There was a week or two in the offseason when I considered shutting it down just because I knew the time suck would be so large. @thedevilwolf in particular is a huge reason why I kept going.

As far as this being my only job, I don’t think that’s feasible unless I went to a pay model and that is not something I’m interested in. This is a labor of love for me, and something I do because I am passionate about Duke Athletics. This site is a way I feel like I can give back for all the great memories and emotions that Duke has given me ever since I first stepped foot in Cameron as a young boy.

You can read more of Adam’s writing at Duke Hoop Blog and follow him on Twitter @DukeHoopBlog.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

“It doesn’t happen with Nike,” Boeheim says of FBI investigation

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One of the prevailing thoughts regarding this opening salvo of the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball is that while it’s currently adidas’ turn in the barrel, whatever malfeasance may be occurring is unlikely to be just isolated to that single shoe company.

When the FBI says they “have your playbook” in regards to alleged corruption,  it would seem they’re indicating at a systemic issue in college basketball rather than a single apparel company like adidas, which had two executives arrested amid the probe that shaken the hoops landscape.

Jim Boeheim, though, does not share those sentiments.

“It doesn’t happen with Nike,” Boeheim said at Syracuse’s media day, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. “Nike has about 80 schools. The guys we’re recruiting, we’re recruiting against three or four Nike schools most of the time. (Nike) isn’t going to help one of those schools.”

Well, that settles it. Nike and its schools are in the clear. Even if the apparel giant’s grassroots hoops division was reportedly served a subpoena last month. And that Merl Code, one of the adidas executives arrested, worked for Nike previously.

Of course, there may be issues with some of the logic Boeheim employs here. While, as he says, Syracuse may often being going against other Nike schools in recruiting, there are surely times when adidas or Under Armour schools are in the mix. What happens then? Or even if it’s multiple Nike schools competing, the hypothetical money changing hands is illicit, and thereby under the table and unofficial, so it’s not like there wouldn’t be plausible deniability if a coach on the losing end of a recruitment  ever went to express his displeasure at any particular rumors. And how hard – or publicly – is a coach going to complain when his school is securing millions from Nike in cash and gear each year?

It’s also worth noting that not all schools are created equal, even if they’re under the same apparel umbrella. Ohio State’s contract is worth $16.8 million a year while someone like Kansas State’s is worth $1.9 million, according to Forbes. Nike may have an interest in helping one school over the other, theoretically.

Maybe Boeheim is correct, but it’s clear the entire system – and all the entities its made up of – are going to be under scrutiny. So the FBI probably isn’t going to exempt Nike, or any other apparel company, from its ongoing investigation, regardless of what a coach at a Nike school says. It’s also worth noting, in deference to full disclosure, that Nike has long outfitted Syracuse, and Boeheim has been very active as a part of Team USA basketball, where Nike is quite influential

“First of all, I think the FBI could do a lot better investigating criminals and terrorists than they can investigating college basketball,” Boeheim said. “In my opinion. I’m a tax-payer. There’s a few tax-payers here. I’d sure as hell rather have them looking into terrorism and not spending three years investigating AAU programs or shoe companies. That’s the least of our concern.”

 

Watch list released for Abdul-Jabbar award

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Twenty players were announced as members of the preseason watch list for the Karee Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year award.

Among the 20 are Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, St. Mary’s senior Jock Landale and Purdue’s Isaac Haas.

“I would like to thank the Basketball Hall of Fame for the honor of being the namesake of this award,” said Abdul-Jabbar, a 1995 inductee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and six-time NBA Champion, said in a release. “The student-athletes recognized have worked tirelessly to earn their spots on this list and I look forward to seeing how their hard work will pay off this season.”

Previous winners include Przemek Karnowski (2017), Jakob Poetl (2016) and Frank Kaminsky (2015).

The group of 20 (though players not included in the preseason watch list can be later included) will be trimmed to 10 in February and five finalists in March. The winner will be announced April 6.

2018 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award Candidates

Dusan Ristic Arizona
Austin Wiley Auburn
Kingsley Okoroh California
Tacko Fall Central Florida
Marques Bolden Duke
John Egbunu Florida
Jessie Govan Georgetown
Ben Lammers Georgia Tech
Nick Richards Kentucky
Omer Yurtseven NC State
Isaac Haas Purdue
Jock Landale Saint Mary’s
Angel Delgado Seton Hall
Michael Humphrey Stanford
Vladimir Brodziansky TCU
Mohamed Bamba Texas
Tyler Davis Texas A&M
Thomas Welsh UCLA
Chimezie Metu USC
Ethan Happ Wisconsin

 

Southland Preview: Can Stephen F. Austin regain the throne?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland.

The Southland finally saw Stephen F. Austin‘s dominant run end last season as New Orleans claimed the regular season title and NCAA tournament autobid. Although the Lumberjacks finished in second place in head coach Kyle Keller’s first season, expectations are in place for another potential conference title in 2017-18. Stephen F. Austin returns eight of their top nine producers from last season including Player of the Year candidate T.J. Holyfield on the interior. If Stephen F. Austin’s offense can get a boost then they could be in for another dangerous season.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has to replace the scoring punch of forward Rashawn Thomas but do-it-all senior Ehab Amin is back to lead the charge. Amin led the nation in steals last season while filling up the box score in many other ways as he’s flanked by guards Kareem South and Joseph Kilgore. Lamar made a leap last season as they won 19 games and made a CIT appearance. Senior forward Colton Weisbrod is a throwback undersized frontcourt presence while the backcourt of point guard Joey Frenchwood and shooter Nick Garth is among the league’s stronger returning duos.

Returning most of last season’s contributors, Abilene Christian is hoping to make a major leap up the Southland standings. Sophomore big man Jalone Friday is a promising player to build around while junior guards Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin both put up double-figures in the scoring column last season. Incarnate Word is going to put up points but the Cardinals will need to figure things out on the defensive end. Jalin Hart, Simi Socks and Shawn Johnson are all returning upperclassmen who averaged at least 14 points per game each last season.

Southeastern Louisiana has a chance to make noise as junior point guard Marlain Veal and junior forward Moses Greenwood are a solid 1-2 punch. With a deep bench returning, the Lions have a lot of upperclass experience and could be a surprise team. The return of Jalan West for a seventh season is a major story for Northwestern State. The former Player of the Year candidate has to stay healthy but he’s joined by junior big man Ishmael Lane and senior guard Devonte Hall to form a solid nucleus.

Losing four starters will be tough for Sam Houston State but junior point guard John Dewey III is back to lead the team’s offense. Senior big man Chris Galbreath has a chance to be a breakout player. Central Arkansas has the Southland’s returning leading scorer in senior guard Jordan Howard but the Bears have to make major strides on the defensive end and controlling turnovers.

New Orleans has a lot of new pieces after last year’s run to the Big Dance as the Privateers need to replace three starters. Senior forward Travin Thibodeaux and senior big man Makur Puou are back along with a lot of question marks. After a CIT appearance, Houston Baptist loses five seniors and multiple transfers but senior center Josh Ibarra is an all-league threat.  

Nicholls lost seven seniors and needs to rebuild as senior point guard Jahvaughn Powell has a chance to have a big year. McNeese finished in last place a season ago but most of that group is back. Sophomore guard Kalob Ledoux has a chance to be one of the league’s better guards.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ehab Amin, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

College basketball’s leader with 124 total steals last season (3.4 per game), this 6-foot-4 senior guard can also put up numbers all over the stat sheet. The Egyptian averaged 16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season while shooting 46 percent from the floor. If Amin improves his 28 percent three-point shooting then he could be in for a monster season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOUTHLAND TEAM

  • Colton Weisbrod, Lamar: Undersized at 6-foot-5 but great in the paint, this senior averaged 15.1 points and 8.1 boards per contest. Weisbrod shot 52 percent from the floor but only 16 percent from three-point range.
  • T.J. Holyfield, Stephen F. Austin: Versatile junior forward averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor.
  • Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: The senior has a chance to reach 2,000 career points after dropping 19.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season. Howard could stand to improve his shooting efficiency.
  • Jalone Friday, Abilene Christian: Intriguing sophomore big man had tremendous splits (52% FG, 45% 3PT, 82% FT) and put up 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season in only 21.7 minutes per contest.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SouthlandSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Stephen F. Austin
  2. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
  3. Lamar
  4. Abliene Christian
  5. Incarnate Word
  6. Southeastern Louisiana
  7. Northwestern State
  8. Sam Houston State
  9. Central Arkansas
  10. New Orleans
  11. Houston Baptist
  12. Nicholls
  13. McNeese

‘Border War’ exhibition to be streamed

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The 19,000 fans who secured tickets to the Sprint Center for the charity-inspired reignition of the Border War won’t be the only ones to be able to watch Kansas and Missouri play Sunday.

The exhibition game, whose proceeds will be used for hurricane relief, will be streamed live for those willing to spend $40, the schools announced Friday.

“Our first objective was to sell out Sprint Center,” the two schools said jointly in a release. “Once we achieved the sellout so quickly, our fans who could not get tickets expressed tremendous interest in having the game televised. We wanted to make sure that the charities we’ve identified would be the only entities to derive revenue from this game.  SIDEARM Sports has provided the platform to allow us to create a second stream of revenue via this telecast.”

The broadcast will feature Leif Lisec doing play-by-play and ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe as the analyst and sideline reporter, respectively. The trio are donating their time for the broadcast.

The Jayhawks and Tigers haven’t played since 2012, when Missouri bolted the Big 12 for the SEC. There certainly has been resentment from the move, which has kept the two from scheduling a non-conference tilt. Now, though, they’re hoping the layoff has built enough anticipation to raise upward of $1 million for the Houston Harvey Relief Fund, the Rebuild Texas Fund, the Florida Disaster Fund, Juntos y Unidos Por Puerto Rico and the Fund for the U.S. Virgin Islands after a devastating hurricane season in the United States.

The game will pit the perennial powerhouse Jayhawks, expected to be a top-five preseason team and strong favorite to win the Big 12, against an ascendant Missouri, which has the potential 2018 No. 1 NBA draft pick Michael Porter, Jr. headlining the roster reboot under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for two schools to do something together for the better of the masses,” Kansas coach Bill Self said last week, “and be able to send a significant amount of money to people that are suffering right now. So that is going to come to fruition, and we’re real happy about it.”

College Hoops Contender Series: Can Michigan State’s sophomore class carry them to a title?

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

After looking at Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona, we’re on to my pick to win the national title: The Michigan State Spartans.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Miles Bridges (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

We should start with Miles Bridges here, shouldn’t we?

Bridges is the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 38.9 percent from three on more than five threes per game as a freshman. He was a top ten pick in last year’s loaded NBA Draft and he made the decision to return to school. That doesn’t happen all that often, so it should come as no surprise that Bridges will enter the year as a potential top five pick and the star of a team everyone believes will be in the top five. ‘Who has the best player in college basketball?’ is a great starting point for trying to figure out who are the best teams in college basketball, and Bridges, on paper, is a good bet to be the best player in college basketball.

But there is more to this than the simple fact that Tom Izzo more or less lucked his way into not only having the local five-star prospect pick the Spartans over the likes of Kentucky, but then opt to stay with the Spartans over heading to the NBA Draft.

Bridges is so perfect for what the way that Izzo wants to play.

He’s arguably the best athlete is all of college basketball. He can guards threes and fours. He can protect the rim. He attacks the glass, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, and he can get out and run in transition. Defense, rebounding and the transition game are staples of the teams Izzo wants at his disposal, and Bridges can do all three things well.

Then throw in the rest of the Michigan State front court. Nick Ward is a throwback. He’s a 6-foot-8, 260 pound left-handed behemoth that is impossible to stop one-on-one on the block. He averaged 13.9 points in less than 20 minutes as a freshman. Freshmen aren’t supposed to do that. Sophomores aren’t, either. Ward will be paired up front with Jaren Jackson, who couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to Ward and Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-11 power forward with all the skills you expect out of a modern power forward: He protects the rim, he rebounds and he can space the floor offensively with his three-point shot. He may not have the hype of some of the other big men in the 2017 recruiting class, but he projects as a one-and-done lottery pick all the same.

I still haven’t even mentioned Xavier Tillman, another land-warrior freshman in the front court. He may surprise some people this season. Throw in Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins, and there may not be a more talented and deep front line in the country.

The back court is where the issues lie — we’ll get to that in a second — but there are some things to like about this group. For starters, both Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford were top 30 recruits in the Class of 2016. Neither were all that impressive during their first year in East Lansing, but the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Langford shot 41.6 percent from three last year and Winston averaged 5.2 assists in just over 20 minutes. They are talented and they should continue to improve.

Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. is back for his senior season, and his ability to push the ball in transition has made him a favorite of Izzo, while Matt McQuaid is somehow only a junior. Assuming that both Winston and Langford take a fairly significant step forward, Nairn and McQuaid will be rotation players off the bench, and if that is the case, this Spartan roster looks as strong as any roster in the country.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 PreviewMountain West Preview

Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

There are two real concerns that I have with this Michigan State team heading into next season.

The first, believe it or not, is with Bridges. I don’t see anyway that you can question his ability. He’s a monster. But part of what made him just so effective as a freshman was because he is the prototype for what you look for in a college four in modern — read: small-ball — basketball. He’s big enough to guard power forwards defensively. He rebounds the ball, he protects the rim, he can switch onto anyone defensively and he just so happens to be a perimeter player on the other end of the floor. In other words, he can guard college power forwards but they cannot guard him.

That is an incredibly valuable weapon for a team like Michigan State to have.

And as a sophomore, he won’t be taking advantage of that versatility in the same way. He’ll likely end up playing the majority of his minutes at the three. Jaren Jackson is too good to keep on the floor, particularly when it would mean playing Matt McQuaid of Tum Tum Nairn over him, but Jackson is a full-blown power forward.

It begs the question: Just how effective is Bridges going to be if he is playing at the three? Will it be easier for college small forwards to cover him? Will he be able to take them into the paint if Ward is already occupying space down there? And what about his three-point shot? He made 38.9 percent as a freshman, but how many of those were a result of getting clean looks at the rim because the power forwards guarding him didn’t know how to guard a player like that on the perimeter?

I don’t think this will end up being an issue — hell, we have Bridges as the Preseason National Player of the Year — but it will definitely be something to monitor moving forward.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Cassius Winston (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The bigger question mark, however, will likely end up being Winston, and to a lesser degree Langford.

I love Tum Tum. I wrote a story on him when he was still in high school. His name is awesome. He’s a terrific personality with the kind of back story that makes you want to root for him. But he’s just not good enough to be the starting point guard for a team with national title aspirations. Last season, Nairn started 30 games at the point. Winston started five, and while Izzo had found ways to manufacture minutes for the duo to play to together later in the season, this much was clear: there was something that the Hall of Fame head coach didn’t quite trust about Winston.

Maybe it was his 23 percent turnover rate. Maybe it was Winston’s issues on the defensive end of the floor, or the fact that he didn’t lead the way that Izzo wanted his point guards to. Most likely it was all of the above, and as a sophomore, those are issues that Winston will have to fix.

And I think that he will.

Again, Michigan State is a consensus top three team for a reason. They’re my pick to win the national title this season.

But I can certainly tell myself a story where the Spartans don’t quite come together, and it starts with Winston’s issues at the point.

Langford I am less worried about. He will mostly be fine. Yes, he needs to be more aggressive as a scorer, and we saw some of that late in the season. But mostly he needs to be a guy that can knock down open shots, provide a consistent defensive threat and be a threat in transition, whether he’s spotting up for a three or finishing at the rim. He will be, at best, the third option for these Spartans offensively, and I don’t think it will be that hard for him to fill that role.


Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Michigan State is my pick to win the national title.

I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that between now and the start of the season.

And as good as Tom Izzo is, it’s worth noting that when he has had a team projected as a title contender, the season usually ends up being disappointing. Since the Spartans won the title in 1999, there have been four seasons where they were considered to be a favorite to win the title at some point during the season. In 2009-10, they were No. 2 in the preseason top 25 and limped their way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament; they would eventually get to the Final Four in Detroit that year. In 2010-11, they were again the preseason No. 2 team in the country and finished the year 19-15 with a loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In 2013-14, they were the preseason No. 2 team yet again, living up to the hype for most of the year until a wrist injury suffered by point guard Keith Appling derailed their season; Sparty still found a way to win the Big Ten tournament and get to the Elite 8. Then in 2015-16, the Spartans quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best team before losing to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed.

Will this be the year that bucks that trend?