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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

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.