Anatomy of a comeback … and collapse

8 Comments

When Kansas led Michigan by 11 with four and a half minutes left, the Jayhawks seemed to be just about the least likely team in America to blow the lead. This was a team that started four seniors. This was a team hardened and forged  by years of winning tough road games in the Big 12. This was a team coached by Bill Self, who has been on both sides of this situation so many times there seemed no surprises left.

Anyway, Michigan did not seem capable of a comeback, not on this day. The Jayhawks had held a steady lead from the start. The Wolverines had done surprising work just keeping the game relatively close — all game they had seemed like the little brother swinging punches at the air while the older brother holds him off with one arm. It just seemed a matter of the clock running out.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

4:04 left: Kansas’ Travis Releford had ball stripped away by Michigan freshman Mitch McGary.

There was something off about the way Kansas came in. Heck, the game began with senior Elijah Johnson committing a flagrant foul by hitting McGary in the general groin area. People will argue, I suppose, whether Johnson fully intended to hit McGary in the general groin area — it was only that sliver of doubt that prevented Johnson from being kicked out of the game. Before the game, senior Jeff Withey had apparently talked about how small McGary was (he’s 6-foot-10) and how he expected Kansas to dominate inside. It was all very strange and not very helpful at all.

It’s as if they didn’t understand that McGary, though only a freshman, shows the sorts of tendencies that have already made him beloved at Michigan and will, over time, make him one of the most despised and feared players in the Big 10 — he does all sorts of little things that tear out opponents hearts. It’s the Bill Laimbeer stuff, the Dennis Johnson stuff, in baseball the A.J. Pierzynski stuff, — he strips away a pass, he grabs a loose ball, he steals an offensive rebound, he tips in a ball, he already seems to have a particular knack for staying in the moment and making the winning play.

Remember that scene in “The Usual Suspects” when Chazz Palminteri says to Kevin Spacey, “I’m smarter than you. I’ll find out what I want to know, and I’ll get it from you whether you like it or not?” Yeah, poking at McGary kind of felt like that.

3:55 left: Michigan’s Trey Burke missed a three-point shot. Teammate Glenn Robinson III grabbed the rebound. Robinson missed a shot. McGary grabbed the offensive rebound (another play!), the ball was passed around and it ended up in the hands of Tim Hardaway Jr. He was fouled and made one of two free throws. KANSAS 70, Michigan 60.

Michigan was beginning to out hustle Kansas. This would play a major role in the final four minutes.

3:29 left: Elijah Johnson had ball stripped away by McGary (yet another play!). Michigan quickly worked the ball around and McGary got the ball underneath and scored (we’ll stop putting stuff in parentheses for McGary). KANSAS 70, Michigan 62.

2:54 left: Kansas passed the ball around beautifully and found senior Kevin Young underneath the basket. It looked like he would try a reverse layup but instead he made a brilliant little tip pass to Withey who slammed. KANSAS 72, Michigan 62.

Looking back, I suspect Kansas’ players thought this would be the clincher. It sort of felt that way. They had a double-digit lead, less than three minutes left, the huge Kansas crowd in Cowboys Stadium was roaring (Michigan players talked about this feeling like a road game), this thing seemed to be over from the outside looking in. The way Kansas played the last three minutes, you can’t help but wonder if it looked that way on the inside looking out too.

2:31 left: Hardaway missed a jumper. Robinson got the offensive board — Michigan was playing with the energy of the desperate — and the ball worked back to Hardaway who missed another jump shot. This time Elijah Johnson got the rebound. You could almost hear the deep breath release on the Kansas side. Here Johnson made what I think was the single most devastating play of the game for Kansas.

2:24 left: Johnson dribbled the ball too far in and then tried to pass the ball back out. The ball was tipped away by Robinson, who outran Kansas players for it and dunked on the breakaway. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 64.

Everything Elijah Johnson did here — absolutely everything — seemed wrong. He dribbled fast into the Michigan front court, even though Kansas needed only to take some time off the clock. He dribbled into the teeth of Michigan’s defense, even though there was clearly no opening there. He did not call timeout when he got in trouble, even though Kansas had timeouts. He passed the ball back toward the half court stripe, even though it was a reckless pass that could not lead to anything good.  This single play was pure panic and it led to a dunk and a Michigan sense of hope. Bill Self probably should have realized this and called timeout. Instead …

2:02 left: Johnson, perhaps still in a fog from his turnover, seemed to lose all sense of time. He was caught by a 10-second violation when he could not get the ball across half court in time. You almost never see THIS kind of 10-second violation. Michigan didn’t trap him. They didn’t double team him. He simply let precious seconds tick away, and then, there was some tough defense that stopped him before he could make it across the line. It was as if the batteries on his inner alarm clock had run out.

Elijah Johnson is a good player. He has been through pretty much everything in his four years at Kansas, he has played just about every role, he has made many big plays in big moments. But something about this moment overwhelmed him.

1:55 left: McGary again — this time he was open under the basket he made a little layup. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 66.

And now, yes, everybody understood that it was a game. One minute of clock-time earlier, it was not a game. Not a competitive one. But Michigan’s hustle, the Wolverines playmaking along with Kansas’ trepidation and lack of energy had turned everything around. Bill Self called a timeout. You could lip-read his word: “Unbelievable.”

1:22 left: Travis Relaford got fouled by McGary as he drove hard to the basket. This was a break for Kansas. McGary definitely got all ball on the block — Steve Kerr thought it was a clean play, and Marv Albert tended to agree. You could argue that McGary did hit Relaford pretty hard with the body. The point is not whether it was a good call, though. The point is that it could have gone either way. This one went Kansas. Relaford made both free throws. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 66.

1:16 left: Burke made a long three-point shot. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 69.

No comeback/collapse of this magnitude can happen with one or two plays. It has to be an astonishing series of heroics and mishaps, good and bad bounces, big plays that nobody will remember later. Carlton Fisk’s homer would never have happened except for Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer, and George Foster’s great throw to the plate and numerous other things. But, inevitably, someone will have to step up and do something extraordinary. Trey Burke, the Big 10 player of the year, seemed to understand that this last bit was his job. He did not make a single shot in the first half. Michigan coach John Beilein had told him to look for his shot. It was his time.

41 seconds left: Kansas Ben McLemore missed a driving shot.

There are many people who believe McLemore will be the first pick in the NBA Draft. He will definitely be a very high pick. He has amazing talent — Self calls him the most talented player he’s ever coached. He glides. He can get off his shot seemingly whenever he wants. When his confidence soars (and there were times in this game when his confidence was soaring) he’s an absolute force of nature.

But throughout this tournament, McLemore had often looked lost and discouraged. People offered numerous theories about it, but nobody really knows — not even McLemore. Everything happens so fast in college basketball. McLemore’s father was a playground legend in St. Louis … but he disappeared from Ben’s life. His older brother, Keith, is in jail serving a long sentence after two shooting incidents. Ben grew up in a tiny home often without heat. He followed his basketball talents. He played at three different high schools, was declared ineligible for his freshman season as a partial qualifier, and not long after that told the Lawrence World Journal’s Tom Keegan that his best day is every single day he’s on campus at Kansas.

Then, suddenly, he’s on national television, he’s playing in front of millions, he’s got NBA scouts breaking down his every move, he’s got countless people relying on him, he’s got countless critics looking to call him a fraud, he’s driving to the basket with a chance to put the game away. Of course, a player can’t think about these things or they’ll never succeed. They must remove all this from their minds. They must live inside the moment. They must try, anyway.

33 seconds left: Tim Hardaway missed a three-point shot. There was a scramble for the ball. McLemore seemed to have the best chance to simply fall on the ball — Kansas had the possession arrow. Instead Robinson took the ball away, and he hit a difficult reverse layup. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 71.

“Seasons,” Bill Self would say, “usually come down — if you have a pretty good team — to one possession.”

21 seconds left: Johnson made two free throws. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 71.

Even with all the fury on the Michigan side and all the panic on the Kansas side, it STILL seemed like the Jayhawks would win when Elijah Johnson stepped to the line and swished two free throws.

14 seconds left: Burke drove to the basket and made an open layup. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 73.

The Jayhawks were clearly defending the three-point shot. Burke realized that and pierced through the defense and scored easily.

I think this was a brilliant and game-saving play by Burke … and another blunder by Kansas. It is often said by announcers that the worst thing you can do here is foul because it stops the clock. I’ve heard that so many times that I never really questioned it — now I will. I don’t think it’s true, at least not in this situation. i’m not saying you WANT to foul. I am saying, though, that allowing an uncontested layup in seven seconds seems worse to me than fouling. An uncontested layup also stops the clock and it gives the team two easy points. At least if you foul the player has to make both free throws.

13 seconds left: Elijah Johnson was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Everything about the way Michigan ran the final minute was perfect — John Beilein is one of the best chalkboard coaches in America, and it showed. Michigan only allowed one second to expire after Burke’s made layup before the Wolverines fouled Johnson. They had not used up their fouls earlier in the game, so Johnson was forced to shoot a one-and-one. When he missed, Hardaway grabbed the rebound and got the ball into the hands of Burke. It was, as the cliche goes, just the way you draw it up.

4 seconds left: Trey Burke made amazing 28-foot three-pointer. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 76.

When the game ended, many people would blame Bill Self for not fouling before Burke could get off the shot. This seems to me classic second-guessing and, I think, wrongheaded. Let’s say Kansas fouls Burke with eight or nine seconds left, which is what we’re talking about here. OK, now what? Burke is an 80% free throw shooter, and he was locked in, so let’s just assume he makes both free throws.

And … now what? Kansas STILL was in the one-and-one. You assume Michigan fouls immediately, and would you REALLY want a Kansas player on the line with six or so seconds left shooting a one-and-one with the Jayhawks up only a point? I wouldn’t. A foul there and Kansas legitimately could have lost the game in regulation.

That’s not to say that Kansas and Self escape second-guessing. Self admitted afterward — the Jayhawks defended the play terribly. One defender got picked out of the play, another did not switch and Burke got a good look. It was a very long look, sure, and this is not to take away anything from Trey Burke making a ridiculous 28-foot shot to tie a game with four seconds left.

But you can’t give him a clean look at that shot. You just can’t. Burke might be the best player in America. He’s a great shooter.  You don’t want to give him a comfortable look from 25 feet or 30 feet or 40 feet or 50 feet away. You don’t want to let him get his feet set, basket clear sight, no way. You don’t want to just hope he misses. Not Trey Burke.

Of course, he didn’t miss. When Kansas’ Nadir Tharpe missed his three-pointer — it wasn’t a bad look either, actually, but he missed it — the game went to overtime. Kansas wouldn’t play well in the overtime. Burke would play great. And then game ended in more chaos when Kansas, trailing by two, had Elijah Johnson drive toward the basket. He seemed to realize that he was too far behind the backboard, he passed the ball wildly back to Tharpe for a wicked off-balance three pointer and Kansas lost. “Obviously we didn’t do a very good job on that last possession,” Self said, knowing he was understating things.

But the game wasn’t lost on that one play just like the game wasn’t won when Burke made his long three-pointer (or his even longer three in overtime). It was, instead, a stunning series of plays made by Michigan and not made by Kansas.

John Beilein would say: “The ball bounced our way down the last few minutes, and we keep on playing.”

Bill Self would say, “This will be a tough one to get over for a long time.”

That’s the NCAA Tournament.

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

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
2 Comments

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

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
1 Comment

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?

Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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?

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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?