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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

VIDEO: Memphis had some laughably bad flops against Tennessee

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The highlight of No. 3 Tennessee’s win at Memphis on Saturday wasn’t the win itself or a Memphis fan deciding he needed to find some relief behind a concession stand.

It was the laughably bad flopping efforts by the Memphis guards:

Actually, let me take that back.

What is actually laughably bad here is that two of these flops were actually called as offensive fouls.

Seriously, watch that first clip and explain to me how a referee standing ten feet away can possibly believe that was a real foul.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Zion Williamson reigns again

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Nothing has changed with Zion since last week as Duke has yet to play since the last time we rolled out these rankings. We will, however, get a better sense of what he is able to do come Thursday, when the Blue Devils take on No. 11 Texas Tech, the only team in college basketball that has yet to allow more than 1.0 points-per-possession to a team this season.

2. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

The only game that the Badgers played last week was against Savannah State, and Happ finished with 18 points, 11 boards and six assists. The only reason this is relevant is because is bumped Happ up to averaging 5.0 assists on the season, so I can now say that he’s averaging 19 points, 10 boards and five assists. Not bad.

3. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Ditto, Zion Williamson.

4. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

I asked around about Grant Williams this week, talking to a few coaches that have scouted or game-planned for him, to try and get a sense for what makes this undersized four-man so good this year. Some mentioned the fact that his long arms make him bigger than he is. Others mentioned his sneaky-athleticism, and that he’s able to step out on the perimeter and be a threat more this year than in the pass.

But one thing that I did hear was how good Williams is as a high-low passer and how well Rick Barnes is able to incorporate this into the offense that the Vols run. The advantage here is that Williams is able to pull a bigger player away from the rim, particularly since he is now effective shooting from beyond the arc. It also allows Rick Barnes to attack matchups, particularly when Admiral Schofield is on the floor. Schofield is 6-foot-5 but is built like a wrestler while also being able to elevate over most defenders. The third clip in the video below shows a perfect example of Williams pulling size out of the paint to allow Schofield to post-up a smaller Zach Norvell Jr.:

5. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

One thing that I have touched on over and over again is that Rui Hachimura is not a great defender on the perimeter. According to Synergy, he’s allowed 25 points in 23 possessions where he was isolated defensively, and the 1.087 points-per-possession that he has allowed is good for the 14th percentile nationally.

It has gotten to the point that opposing offenses target the matchup with Hachimura. Mark Few has been mixing up his defenses this season, but one of the things that he does quite a bit is to switch everything on the perimeter, and when he does, opponents have had a tendency to create those switches until they get the matchup they want: Hachimura guarding a ball-handler on the perimeter. The last three clips in the video below show that happening:

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter had one of his worst games of the season the last time we saw the Wahoos play, but that was last Sunday. UVA is at South Carolina this week.

7. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Texas Tech has looked really good this season. They’ve also played Nebraska, USC and Memphis … and that’s basically it. We’ll be able to better have this conversation on Friday morning, after the Red Raiders get Duke in Madison Square Garden.

8. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson was awesome again on Saturday, going for 28 points and 12 boards as Kansas knocked off Villanova in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The only reason that I don’t have Lawson ranked higher than this is that he might not actually be the best player on his own team this season; Lagerald Vick, when he’s not benched or suspended, has been a monster.

9. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker was the best player on the floor for the the Hokies as they smoked Washington in Atlantic City on Saturday. He finished with 24 points and three assists, a return to dominance in the first game Virginia Tech has played against a relevant opponent in nearly three weeks.

10. CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan

This is the first appearance for Matthews — for any Michigan player — in the top ten of these rankings. I’m torn on who from that team should be considered their all-american candidate. I’ve discussed this before, but the way that this Michigan team is built does not lend itself to having a player in that mix. Zavier Simpson is their leader, but that doesn’t really show up in the box score. Ignas Brazdeikis is the team’s leading scorer, but this is a team that wins with defense. Jon Teske is the most-improved player on the roster. Jordan Poole is in that conversation as well.

But for my money, Matthews — who is an alpha defensively, plays a leadership role himself and is the team’s second-leading scorer — is the guy that should get the nod.

IN THE MIX: Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Luguentz Dort (Arizona State) Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Ja Morant (Murray State), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s), Lagerald Vick (Kansas)

Trent Forrest helps No. 11 Florida State beat SE Missouri 85-68

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Trent Forrest scored a career high 23 points and freshman Devin Vassell added 16 points as No. 11 Florida State overcame a sluggish first half and beat Southeast Missouri 85-68 on Monday night.

Forrest shot 8 for 12 from the floor, and had a team-high eight rebounds and four assists to help the Seminoles (9-1) win their fourth straight.

Florida State secured its 30th straight non-conference home win. Nebraska is the last non-conference team to defeat the Seminoles, 70-65 on Dec. 1, 2014.

Ledarrius Brewer scored 16 points and Skyler Hogan added 14 points for Southeast Missouri (5-7).

Christ Koumadje added seven rebounds as Florida State outrebounded the undersized Redhawks 46-28.

Southeast Missouri led 47-42 with 14:46 to go but Florida State went on a 12-0 run to take control for good.

The Seminoles shot 50 percent (31 for 62). They were just 1 for 12 on 3-pointers in the first half before finishing 6 for 24.

Florida State senior forward Phil Cofer played for the first time this season after missing nine games due to a preseason foot injury. Cofer didn’t have a point or rebound in five minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Southeast Missouri: The Redhawks had Florida State on the ropes as Brewer scored 10 points in the first half. They ran out of gas in the second half and couldn’t match up with the Seminoles’ height or athleticism.

Florida State: The Seminoles were playing for the first time in eight days and were able to withstand the scrappy Redhawks.

UP NEXT

Southeast Missouri will host Abilene Christian on Friday.

Florida State hosts North Florida on Wednesday.

Sharp-shooting Vanderbilt beats No. 18 Arizona State 81-65

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Saben Lee scored 14 points to lead five players in double figures and sharp-shooting Vanderbilt beat No. 18 Arizona State 81-65 on Monday night.

Vanderbilt snapped an eight-game skid against ranked opponents that dated to an overtime win over Florida in the 2017 Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Commodores (7-2) also beat Arizona State for the first time in five tries on the Sun Devils’ first visit to Memorial Gym.

The Commodores had a big night from beyond the arc, hitting 6 of 12 from deep in the first half and 12 of 28 for the game.

Aaron Nesmith added 13 points off the bench for Vanderbilt. Yanni Wetzell had 12, and Matt Ryan and Joe Toye had 11 each.

Arizona State, which moved up two spots in the AP Top 25 earlier Monday, has lost two of three.

Rob Edwards led Arizona State with 14 points. Luguentz Dort came in as the fourth-highest freshman scorer in the nation averaging 20.9 points, but he had just 10 points. Zylan Cheatham had 14 rebounds.

This was the first game after the Commodores’ 12-day break for finals and is the second part of a home-and-home deal with Arizona State. The Sun Devils won 76-64 in Tempe last season.

Arizona State opened by scoring the first nine points as Vanderbilt missed its first six shots. After that, the Commodores finished the first half outscoring the Sun Devils 34-19, including an 18-3 run over the final 6:49.

Vanderbilt pushed that to 37-28 when Ryan hit a 3 to open the second half. Dort scored five straight points to pull Arizona State within 37-34, but that was as close as the Sun Devils got until Edwards and Kimani Lawrence hit back-to-back 3s with 3:53 left to pull within 62-59.

Simisola Shittu answered with a layup, and Toye knocked down a 3 as Vanderbilt pushed the lead back to double digits.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona State: The Sun Devils finish 2-1 in nonconference play against the SEC. They beat Mississippi State in November in Las Vegas and edged Georgia last weekend before coming to Nashville. … The Sun Devils came in ninth nationally with a rebound margin of 11.6, yet they outrebounded Vandy only 42-39.

Vanderbilt: The Commodores are part of a rare trio with UNLV and Princeton as the only programs to make a 3-pointer in every game since the 3-point line debuted for the 1986-87 season. After Vanderbilt missed its first seven shots, Nesmith hit a 3 to make it 1,040 straight games with a 3-pointer.

UP NEXT

Arizona State: Hosts top-ranked Kansas on Saturday.

Vanderbilt: Visits Kansas State on Saturday.

Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger lost for season with ACL tear

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Notre Dame senior Rex Pflueger is done for the year.

The 6-foot-6 wing suffered a torn ACL on Saturday in the Fighting Irish’s win against Purdue and will miss the rest of the season, he announced Monday.

“I am saddened to find out that I did in fact tear my ACL in our last game against Purdue,” Pflueger wrote on social media. “This is just one of life’s crazy tests that I have prepared myself for with the loving help of my family and friends. I will continue to cheer and push my Notre Dame family to  not only compete but to dominate for the rest of the season.

“We have an incredible group of players who will pick up right where we left off last game.”

Pflueger has started every game for the 7-3 Irish. He was averaging 8.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 39 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from 3-point range.

“I’m extremely disappointed that he won’t be able to continue this season,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said in a statement. “He has been an unbelievable winner and leader for us. He has continually helped me endorse our culture he at Notre DAme.

“I look forward to him continuing to lead and giving me great feedback the rest of the season.”

Notre Dame, which previously lost Robby Carmody for the season with a torn labrum, will have some time to acclimate to a post-Pflueger reality as the Irish will face Binghamton, Jacksonville and Coppin State before beginning ACC play Jan. 1 at Virginia Tech.

Given the injury happened in the first half of the season and Pflueger has played in just 10 games, he could potentially be a medical redshirt candidate should he choose to pursue a fifth season of eligibility.