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No. 13 Michigan State: Can Cassius Winston carry the load?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 13 Michigan State.


To understand the level of expectation that there was on this Michigan State program last season, consider this: The Spartans went 30-5 last year. They won the Big Ten regular season title outright. After a loss to Duke in the second game of the regular season, they won 28 of their next 30 games.

And the year was, depending on who you ask, somewhere between underwhelming and an outright disappointment.

There are myriad reasons for that.

  1. Michigan State entered the season as a consensus top three team in the country. Many people had them ranked No. 1. That’s what happens when a loaded sophomore class, headlined by Preseason Player of the Year Miles Bridges, is joined by a player as talented as Jaren Jackson Jr. Expectations were enormous.
  2. Speaking of Jaren Jackson Jr., the theme of last season for the Spartans was, more or less, “why won’t Tom Izzo play Jackson at the five and Bridges at the four?” That frustration lingered, and was palplable.
  3. In January, ESPN published a story about the way that Michigan State’s basketball program handled sexual assaults, and it certainly was not positive. Izzo spent much of the rest of the season dealing with questions about the story, and they were done no favors by how much that story was tied into reporting about Larry Nassar. This lingered over the program and, to an extent, still does.
  4. Not only did the Spartans get bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but they sat at home and watched in-state rival Michigan — who knocked them out of the Big Ten tournament — make a run to the national title game.

Put simply, Michigan State’s regular season was marred by off-the-court issues and on-the-court frustrations before a decidedly disappointing performance in March.

That is how an otherwise successful season can get distorted.

And it leads to the inevitable question: What does Michigan State have in store for an encore?

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MICHIGAN STATE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

Think about this in a vacuum.

The Spartans went 30-5 last season. They won the Big Ten regular season title outright. They return three of their top four scorers and four of the six players that played starters’ minutes last season. They’ll start at least four, and possibly five, upperclassmen this year, including a trio of top 50 prospects that are finally — hopefully? — coming of age.

On paper, without all the noise that comes with the hangover of last season, this team looks really, really good.

Let’s start by talking about Cassius Winston. The 6-foot junior is one of the nation’s best passers and, as his sophomore season progressed, he grew into being one of the most dangerous shooters in college hoops. He led the Big Ten by averaging 6.9 assists per game which finishing second nationally in assist rate. He shot 49.7 percent from three on more than four attempts per game, which led the Big Ten and put him fifth nationally. He finished third in the country in offensive rating for players that used at least 20 percent of their team’s offensive possessions.

Simply put, there is no questioning just how valuable he is to Michigan State’s offensively, even if he still turns the ball over at a higher-than-ideal rate.

And Winston, like Joshua Langford and Nick Ward, will be entering his junior season with a chance to make this team his. The last two seasons, Miles Bridges has been the name that everyone associated with Spartans basketball, and that worked but only to a point: Bridges was built more as a role player than an alpha-dog. Losing a player like that isn’t a good thing, but it may make things easier from a role allocation perspective.

Langford and Ward will determine Michigan State’s ceiling — I’ll expand on that in a bit — while the rest of this roster is filled with veteran try-hards that Izzo has had so much success with and a promising freshman class that will be better than most realize. Senior Matt McQuaid should start in the backcourt while Kenny Goins will likely compete with sophomore big man Xavier Tillman — who has dropped 30 pounds — for a starting spot at the four.

Aaron Henry is the freshman that should have the biggest impact, as he’s a terrific athlete with a body that’s filled out and an understanding of how to play without needing to have the ball in his hands. He is not going to come in and put up 15 points a night, but he should provide big minutes as a defensive presence. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both four-star recruits with terrific physical tools that are still learning how to best use them while adding weight and strength. Foster Loyer is the guy that will backup Winston at the point.

Cassius Winston (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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BUT MICHIGAN STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

As a team, the Spartans were not very athletic last season. Miles Bridges was an absolute freak-show, but beyond that, their roster was made up of below-the-rim land warriors in the paint and guards that notable because they are skilled and savvy and crafty, not because they can jump over a car.

Jaren Jackson Jr. was the second-best athlete on this team last season, and even he was an average-at-best athlete; he was long and smooth more than he was explosive.

What’s left is a team that may not have a plus-athlete in their starting lineup.

I’m sure Winston can dunk, but I’ve never seen him do it in a game. Langford has matured into a really effective jump-shooter, but one of the reasons he’s the highest-rated five-star from the Class of 2016 that’s still in college is that he doesn’t have the burst to turn a corner or finish amongst the trees. Ward and Tillman are both big, physical forwards, throwbacks to an era where a power forward was, you know, powerful. McQuaid gets the most out of his physical ability, but he is what he is.

There is some athleticism in this freshman class, but I’m not quite sure just how ready those kids are for the grind of the Big Ten.

This team actually reminds me quite a bit of North Carolina’s 2017 national title team, the one that starred Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson.

It’s proof that you can win without having the best athletes on the floor.

But Berry was an all-american, Jackson was a lottery pick and Meeks was able to defend without fouling and avoid turnovers. Winston might end up being an all-american, but Langford is a long way from being a lottery pick right now while there is a reason that Ward — who struggles with fouls, turnovers and maintaining Izzo’s trust — has yet to average 20 minutes a night despite 13 points and nearly seven boards in his two seasons.

Which is why …

Joshua Langford (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

… this team’s ceiling is going to be determined by what Langford and Ward turn into this year.

Both players are talented, although the reasons that they have struggled to consistently live up to expectations differs.

The answer is probably easier with Ward, whose struggles with playing time seem to be more self-inflicted than anything else. Some of it was bad body language. Some of it was defensive miscues, whether it be a missed assignment or mounting foul trouble he couldn’t seem to avoid. Some of it was the fact that he just turned the ball over too damn much. The end result, however, was a season of frustration spent playing fewer minutes than he felt he deserved while bouncing in and out of Izzo’s doghouse.

It should shock no one that Ward’s struggles were magnified against elite competition. Case in point: His offensive rating last season was 116.8, but that dropped to 112.4 against Big Ten foes, 103.1 in top 100 games (adjusted for location) and 89.4 in top 50 games. Similarly, his foul and turnover rates soared against better competition.*

Ward, when he’s right, is one of the most dominant low-post scorers in the country and a guy that is actually much better than he gets credit for as a rim-protector, but so much about the way that Izzo manipulates his rotation is about trust — that’s why Kenny Goins may start and Tum Tum Nairn played as many minutes as he did — and Ward has yet to earn his trust for an entire season.

Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Langford’s issue is a bit different.

He’s been fine as a player, someone that started all 35 games last year while averaging 27 minutes. He was as consistent as anyone on the team too, which ended up being something of a detriment for him. Relatively speaking, Langford is just an OK athlete at the Big Ten level. He’s not one of these two-guards that thrives putting the ball on the floor and getting all the way to the rim, and even when he does, he lacks the vertical burst to deal with the shot-blockers at the rim.

The result is that he’s turned into something of a midrange jump-shooter, and if you know even the slightest thing about basketball analytics, you know that two-point jumpers are the worst shot in basketball you can take.

Why?

Because players in general — and Langford specifically — doesn’t make them at a rate that is all that much higher than shooting threes, but every shot he makes is worth one point less. That, quite literally, is the definition of inefficiency. That is how a guy that shot better than 40 percent from three and 84.9 percent from the free throw line finished with an offensive as low as his was.

If those two play up to an all-Big Ten level, the Spartans will likely win the Big Ten regular season title for a second straight season.

If they don’t, the outlook for this season is much, much different.

*(Data from KenPom)

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Big Ten is not all that good this season. Even the most ardent Big Ten supporters would probably agree with that. There will be more depth this year than in year’s past, but the fact of the matter is that Michigan State is our highest-ranked team in the league heading into 2018-19, and I’m not sure there is anyone that is going to disagree with that.

Which means that the Spartans have a pretty good chance at repeating as Big Ten champs. At the very least they are going to be in the mix. Winston is good enough that he’ll allow them to be effectively offensively, while I think Izzo is incapable of having a team that is outright bad on the defensive end.

Put another way, they’ll be fine.

I do wonder whether or not this group has the upside to make another run to the Final Four. Generally speaking, talent wins out in March. Teams with NBA players win in March, and I wonder if there actually is a first round pick on this roster.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Seven returning collegians among Team USA U19 invites

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USA Basketball is welcoming seven sophomores among its 34 total invitees to training camp next month ahead of the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece.

Incoming freshmen and Class of 2020 will vie for 12 roster spots with Kansas State coach Bruce Weber helming the team and being assisted by Washington’s Mike Hopkins and North Carolina Central’s LaVelle Moton.

The returning college players garnering invites are Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine), Tyrse Haliburton (Iowa State), Kira Lewis (Alabama), Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State), Trevion Williams (Purdue) and Bryce Willis (Stanford), along with Jayden Scrubb from the junior college ranks.

“The committee is excited at the level of talent that will be at training camp for the USA U19 World Cup team, and we expect to have a difficult decision trying to narrow down the group to 12 team members,” Matt Painter, Purdue coach and cahr of the junior national team committee, said in a statement.

R.J. Hampton, Samuell Williamson, Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs are some of the headliners from the group of players without college experience.

Sophomores

Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine/Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.)

Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State/Oshkosh, Wis.)

Kira Lewis Jr. (Alabama/Meridianville, Ala.)

Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State/Mansfield, Texas)

Jayden Scrubb (John A. Logan College/Louisville, Ky.)

Trevion Williams (Purdue/Chicago, Ill.)

Bryce Wills (Stanford/White Plains, N.Y.).

Incoming freshmen

Eric Dixon (Abington H.S./William Grove, Pa.)

Dajuan Gordon (Curie H.S./Chicago, Ill.)

R.J. Hampton (Little Elm H.S./Little Elm, Texas)

Justin Moore(DeMatha Catholic H.S./Accokeek, Md.)

Casey Morsell (St. John’s College H.S./Washington, D.C.)

Zeke Nnaji (Hopkins H.S./Hopkins, Minn.)

Isaac Okoro (McEachern H.S./Powder Springs, Ga.)

Onyeka Okongwu (Chino Hills H.S./Chino, Calif.)

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (IMG Academy, FL/Overland Park, Kan.)

Isaiah Stewart (La Lumiere School, IN/Rochester, N.Y.)

Anton Watson (Gonzaga Prep/Spokane, Wash.)

Mark Watts Jr. (SPIRE Institute/Pontiac, Mich.)

Romeo Weems (New Haven H.S./Chesterfield, Mich.)

Samuell Williamson (Rockwall H.S./Rockwall, Texas).

Class of 2020

Scottie Barnes (University School/West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Nimari Burnett (Prolific Prep, Calif./Chicago, Ill.)

Joshua Christopher (Mayfair H.S./Lakewood, Calif.)

Sharife Cooper (McEachern H.S./Powder Springs, Ga.)

Cade Cunningham (Montverde Academy, Fla./Arlington, Texas)

Hunter Dickinson (DeMatha Catholic H.S., Md./Alexandria, Va.)

Jalen Green(Prolific Prep/Fresno, Calif.)

Walker Kessler (Woodward Academy/Newnan, Ga.)

Caleb Love (Christian Brothers College H.S./St. Louis, Mo.)

Evan Mobley (Rancho Christian School/Temecula, Calif.)

Ethan Morton (Butler H.S./Butler, Pa.)

Jalen Suggs (Minnehaha Academy/Minneapolis, Minn.)

Ziaire Williams (Notre Dame H.S./Sherman Oaks, Calif.).

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: Transferring players need ‘deterrent’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The NCAA is granting too many waivers allowing players who transfer to compete immediately, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Wednesday, calling the requirement that players sit out a year a useful “deterrent” to players switching schools.

Brey made his comments at a meeting of the Knight Commission, a nonprofit that pushes for reform in college sports. While the commission has not taken a position on transfer waivers, it often advocates for players being given more freedom to pursue their professional ambitions.

“As coaches we’re concerned about the number of waivers, to the point where the NCAA has given too much of a blueprint on how to get a waiver,” Brey said. “Kids feel they can go and, you know, bring up enough of a case to get eligible right away. So they’re more apt to want to go.”

In April 2018, the NCAA relaxed its waiver requirements, allowing a transferring player to suit up immediately if there are “documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.”

During the 2018-19 academic year, 79 men’s basketball players requested waivers and 44 were granted, a 56% success rate, according to NCAA data. Men’s basketball accounted for 33% of all waiver requests, the NCAA said.

Commission co-chairman Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, declined to comment on waivers but lauded the “transparency” of the NCAA’s transfer portal, in which players submit their names if they want to switch schools.

Brey said he believes players should be free to transfer and that it’s up to coaches to make their players want to stay, but he said sitting out a year can be beneficial and prevents players from transferring for immature or capricious reasons.

“It’s a bit of a deterrent for a kid. The year in residency saves kids from themselves sometimes,” Brey said. “I’ve seen some kids then come back, stick it out, and now they’re in the lineup and they come back five years later and go, ‘I was an idiot.’ Because every kid thinks about (transferring) when he’s not playing.”

ROADBLOCKS TO REFORM

Brey’s comments were one of a few examples from Wednesday’s meeting of the basketball establishment pushing back against reforms that would give players more autonomy or promote transparency about the way schools profit from college athletics.

The Knight Commission is pushing the NCAA to release to the public the financial details of contracts between athletic departments and shoe and apparel companies, a proposal that has not gained much traction. In the past, the commission has persuaded the NCAA to release graduation rates and other financial data, including compensation for coaches.

“The shoe companies, there has to be agreement across the board, that there has to be willingness and openness to share all those records. Candidly, I think more work needs to be done,” said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president for Division I governance. “We don’t control all the third parties and their ability to cooperate with us. More conversation needs to continue to occur within the NCAA and between the NCAA and the third parties if we want to move the ball.”

Two NBA executives told the commission the league is in talks with the players’ union about lowering the NBA’s minimum age to 18, prompted largely by a recommendation by the Commission on College Basketball to rid the sport of the “one-and-done rule.”

But even that proposal is meeting some resistance in the NBA. David Krichavsky, the league’s senior vice president and head of youth basketball development, said some in the league would rather raise the age limit than lower it.

“Many teams and general managers would still be in favor of going to 20, given the additional scouting information you receive on players, seeing them compete at the NCAA level for two years after high school,” Krichavsky said, “but at the same time we recognize that the world has changed and will continue to change.”

COACHES BEHAVING BADLY

Brey, the president of the board of directors of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said he’d like to see coaches reach a consensus about how to police their own behavior.

An ongoing federal investigation into illicit payments made to players during the recruiting process led Louisville to fire longtime coach Rick Pitino, but some other coaches implicated in the probe have held onto their jobs. Brey said schools ought to move more aggressively to fire coaches for cause when they violate NCAA rules.

“We all have clauses in our contracts about NCAA rules and behavior, all of us. If those are violated, doesn’t that start on the campuses?” Brey said. “And no question the NABC could make a stronger stand. We have not maybe been as vocal about some of the things that have gone on.”

Report: NCAA will give more notices of allegations soon

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Now that the FBI’s college basketball corruption cases are complete, the NCAA will likely move forward with more notices of allegations.

Speaking to ESPN’s Heather Dinich on Wednesday at the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, NCAA vice president of Division I Governance Kevin Lennon said that more investigations could come “in due time and I think  very quickly.”

The NCAA needed to wait for the FBI’s trials to finish up before launching its own investigations on schools mentioned over the past 18 months. We could see a high number of big-name programs get investigated during the NCAA’s process.

“You don’t get in the way of a federal investigation,” Lennon said Wednesday. “Activity was going on during that span that was within our purview, but now that the court cases are done, now we’re in a position where you’re likely to see notices of allegations going to institutions that have violated NCAA rules, etc. I think you can anticipate notices of allegations will be coming.”

Following the completion of the first FBI trial in October 2018, the NCAA already reportedly sent notice of allegations to Arizona, Kansas, NC State and Louisville. Other prominent programs, including but not limited to, Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma State and USC have also been mentioned during recent college basketball corruption trials.

While the NCAA will seek all documents that schools turned over to the federal government during legal procedures, the real difficulty in the NCAA’s investigations will be getting third-party participants to speak — or even cooperate in the first place. Those not tied to the NCAA through member schools have no legal obligation to help the NCAA during their investigation process.

Wednesday’s Knight Commission meeting also went over processes discussed or implemented because of the Rice Commission’s April 2018 report. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, president of the board of directors for the NABC, made waves by questioning where accountability comes from when it comes to coaching penalties.

Asking why “there’s been no hammer from the top of campus,” Brey asked why schools haven’t been accountable with coaches who break the rules.

“Why hasn’t an athletic director or a president acted in some of these current cases?” Brey said.

“I think a lot of our coaches want to know why hasn’t the hammer come down? I’m a little naïve to it. Is it legal stuff? A lot of lawyers? I think our profession would love to see the hammer be dropped on some of these situations. We need an explosion back.”

Brey has every right to question where penalties are coming from since only Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has lost his job among head coaches during this scandal. There seems to be a lot of confusion on where some things stand with the NCAA, and its rules, but maybe we’ll get more clarification now that the FBI trials are done.

Juwan Howard will be the next Michigan head coach

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Juwan Howard is heading back to school.

The former Fab Five member has accepted an offer to replace John Beilein as Michigan’s next head coach, according to multiple reports. He has spent the last six seasons as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, where he played his final three seasons as a pro. The Wolverines ultimately picked Howard over Providence head coach Ed Cooley and Luke Yaklich, who was an assistant on Michigan’s staff the last two years.

Stadium is reporting that Howard has agreed to a five-year deal.

This will be the first time in 25 years that Howard has been back in the mix on a college campus, since he left Ann Arbor to become the No. 5 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and that is what makes this decision a risk for the Wolverines.

Howard has never been an assistant coach at the college level. He hasn’t worked at the high school level. He hasn’t coached in the AAU ranks. There is not a strong track record for this kind of a hire. Of all the former NBA player that have ended up coaching a college team, Fred Hoiberg is really the only one that has had unquestionable and continued success. Kevin Ollie won a national title with UConn, but he not only was an assistant coach on Jim Calhoun’s staff for two years before getting the job, his title-winning team was a No. 7-seed that rode Shabazz Napier’s coattails to the title and he eventually got fired after driving UConn straight into the ground. Chris Mullin was a bust at St. John’s. The jury is still out on Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, but two years in he’s sitting with a 34-29 record and a 14-22 mark in the Big East.

Avery Johnson. Isiah Thomas. Clyde Drexler. Mike Dunleavy. Mark Price. Danny Manning. The list of NBA guys that have gone back to school and fizzled out is long.

Penny Hardaway — and, to a point, Jerry Stackhouse — are different. Penny worked his way up from the bottom. He started as a middle school coach and spent about a decade coaching in the high school and AAU ranks in Memphis before taking over the Tigers. Stackhouse coached an AAU program before taking over at Vanderbilt as well. They know the ins and outs of building relationships at that level. They had a keen understanding of what it means to be a head coach at the college level when they got hired, even if that understanding came from dealing with coaches recruiting their players.

Howard doesn’t have that.

And it doesn’t mean that he is going to be a flop.

When you have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade campaigning for you, the kids you will be recruiting will take notice. When your candidacy brings Jalen Rose and Chris Webber together, there are going to be people in Ann Arbor that want to make this work. He spent two decades playing in the NBA. He was an assistant on Erik Spoelstra’s staff, a staff that has turned the Heat into one of the better defensive teams in the NBA ever since LeBron left. That same staff has also proven themselves capable of establishing a culture of hard work, toughness and player development.

Howard may not have a ton of experience on a college bench — or doing the things required to run a college program — but the coaching chops are there.

But there is no question that this is a major risk.

And while Warde Manuel’s decision to hire Ollie when he had the same job in Storrs did result in UConn winning their fourth national title, he also ended up bringing in the guy that had to be fired just four years after cutting down those nets.

Clemson forward Baehre tears knee ligament

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson forward Jonathan Baehre is out indefinitely after tearing a knee ligament.

The school says the injury occurred during practice Monday. There is no timetable for his return.

Baehre is a 6-foot-10 junior transfer from UNC Asheville who sat out last season. With four senior starters gone off this year’s team, Baehre was expected to play a major role for the Tigers.

Coach Brad Brownell says it’s an unfortunate injury for Baehre and the team. Brownell says Baehre had worked hard since joining the Tigers and he had no doubt Baehre would approach rehab strongly “and have a very productive career at Clemson.”

Baehre, from Germany, started 21 games for UNC Asheville in 2017-18 and averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game.