No. 3 Michigan State lost on Monday night in the quarterfinals of the Maui Invitational to a Virginia Tech team that saw their top five players, and their head coach, bounce during the offseason.
Let me repeat that for you.
The preseason No. 1 team in the country flew all the way to Hawaii to get beaten by the team picked 14th in the ACC.
It was Michigan State’s second loss in the first five games of the season. They are the first team to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason to lose two of their first five games since … Cincinnati in 1996-97.
That, my friends, is not ideal.
But the truth is that it continues a trend that has started to become somewhat worrying, one that has played out over the course of the three games where Michigan State has faced off with high-major competition.
So just what is wrong with the Spartans?
I have some answers.
Last year, the most memorable shot of the season for the Spartans, the shot that beat No. 1 Duke and sent Michigan State to the Final Four, did not come from Cassius Winston. Or Xavier Tillman. Or Aaron Henry. Or anyone that you would think it would.
It came from Kenny Goins.
The 6-foot-8 forward hit a three with 34 seconds over Zion Williamson, giving Michigan State a 68-66 lead. They would not need to score again to get to Minneapolis, and the key to Michigan State’s entire 2019-20 season could very well hinge on whether or not the Spartans have anyone on their roster than can make that exact same shot.
What happened on the play where Williamson left Goins was just a simple mental mistake – two guys followed Winston, no one followed Goins – and, in reality, it is a perfect example of why this year’s iteration of the Spartans are struggling.
The secret is out on how to stop the Spartans, who run ball-screens more than anyone else in college basketball: Sell out to keep Winston from beating you.
Kentucky discovered the recipe. Whenever a ball-screen was set for Winston, the Wildcats left two defenders with Winston for as long as possible, forcing the ball out of his hands. Their game-plan was, more or less, to let literally anyone else on the roster try to beat them. Seton Hall did the same thing. So did Virginia Tech. I’ve heard different terms used to describe exactly what this defense is – best I can tell, it’s something between a slow hedge and a soft double – but the intention for all three was pretty simple.
John Calipari, Kevin Willard and Mike Young decided they didn’t need to guard Thomas Kithier.
“If they want to double team Cash, we gotta make them pay for it,” Xavier Tillman told me. “By not having bigs that can shoot, it hurts us. The big will be open up top and he’s gotta take that shot. If he passes up the shot, that will be it. Malik, he can hit that shot on a consistent basis. So now, if you want to trap Cash, he’ll get an open three and knock it down.”
“It helps us space the floor out,” he added. “We can keep the defense honest.”
Now, the thing that makes Draymond Green so special and such a perfect fit in the Golden State system with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson is that he’s one of the best passers in the world for a big man. When defenses sell out to stop Steph in a ball-screen and Draymond receives the ball in a 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 situation, he can drive, he can shoot, he can make defenses pay for the attention they give to Golden State’s shooters. What makes him so special is that he almost always makes the right decision.
Thomas Kithier is not Draymond Green, and neither was Kenny Goins, but Goins was good enough to make some threes, and he did average 2.3 assists as a senior, and he did all of this as Michigan State’s leading rebounder and a very good frontcourt defender.
It should come as no coincidence, then, that the best half that the Spartans have played against high-major competition came in the half where Malik Hall, a freshman forward that is the closest thing Izzo has to Goins on his roster, scored 17 points, hit three threes and made all seven of the shots he took from the field.
“When [a big] shoots like that, and they’re doing all that roll and replace, and you have to deal with Tillman down low, and you have Gabe Brown in the corner and Aaron Henry in the corner, then all of a sudden you have to start switching pick and rolls and you have a four-man on Cassius Winston,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said. “Good luck with that.”
The truth, however is that just has not been the case the majority of the season.
Take a look at these plays.
There is just no space for Cassius Winston to do anything on this side of the floor, but when the ball is rotated, the Spartans do not have the weapons to make them pay.
The question then becomes whether or not this is a problem that can be solved.
And I think it can be.
We know how young this Michigan State team truly is. There are really only three upperclassmen on the roster, and the freshmen and sophomores they have are more program guys than they are early entry candidates. Henry is an absolute monster, and when combined with Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, he gives Michigan State one of the best trios in the country.
But Gabe Brown is still learning what and when he has to do on the defensive end of the floor. Malik Hall has played one good half of basketball this season. Rocket Watts is still figuring out the college game. Those are the three guys that the Spartans need to get up to speed if they want to play a smaller lineup. Frankly, I think the most interesting lineup that the Spartans can roll out will feature Watts on the floor to move Winston off the ball with Henry and one of Brown, Hall or Ahrens on the floor with them.
I just don’t think Izzo trusts his younger guys enough to play that way right now.
They’ll get there with time.
It just may be more time than we initially expected.