Michigan State Basketball: Don’t overlook Thomas Kithier in 2019-20

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 17: Thomas Kithier #15 of the Michigan State Spartans grabs a rebound in the second half during a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Breslin Center on February 17, 2019 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 17: Thomas Kithier #15 of the Michigan State Spartans grabs a rebound in the second half during a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Breslin Center on February 17, 2019 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images) /

Michigan State basketball is loaded for the 2019-20 season, but the one name that seems to be overlooked is sophomore Thomas Kithier.

When the big man hits the deck, so do fans’ hopes. When Nick Ward went down with a hand injury against Ohio State, it seemed like nothing would end well. Josh Langford was already out for the year and losing another starter didn’t make a Final Four run seem feasible. The players on the 2018-19 squad were predicted to be good, as it was ranked No. 10 in the AP preseason poll, but not like the 2017-18 team that was supposed to win the national championship.

The leap wasn’t something anyone saw coming.

Cassius Winston made dazzling plays as the team’s sharpshooter and floor general. Ward lost weight and was in much better shape both mentally and physically. Langford was a consistent shooting guard after struggling for two years. Kenny Goins came ready to go out like a champ in his final season. Matt McQuaid, similar to Langford, found a consistent jump shot and emerged at times other than clutch moments. Xavier Tillman was the best sixth man in the conference, and later one of the best starters on the team. Aaron Henry was a wizard on defense.

What Tillman and Henry did in their first opportunities as starters was incredible and has secured them starting spots in next year’s lineup. There was hype around the other freshman coming into the season. Outside of the two forwards, other young players made noise that will spill into next season.

The 2018 class had a sharpshooter in Foster Loyer, a raw Jaren Jackson Jr. in Marcus Bingham Jr., a few elite athletes in Henry and Gabe Brown, and then there was Thomas Kithier, a 6-foot-8 forward who sat out his entire senior year after being deemed ineligible by the MHSAA for transferring high schools. Not much had been made of Kithier’s name except for the fact that he “played” with Foster Loyer his senior year of high school.

Fast forward to mid-February and Ward goes down with a hand injury. Tillman was, of course, the next man up, but someone needed to fill his former bench role. Enter Thomas Kithier, the new backup forward. He had played a few minutes from time to time, but nothing serious. From the beginning of the season until the Minnesota game on Feb. 9, Kithier averaged just under five minutes of playtime. During the six games Ward was hurt, Kithier averaged over 11 minutes per game.

Getting experience at the next level, especially after not playing basketball for over a year, is monumental for any player. Kithier proved he can fit into a big name program without skipping a beat.

Don’t get it twisted, Kithier isn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but under the circumstances, he showed up. His minutes weren’t just the waning seconds of a blowout against Rutgers, either. Kithier notched at least eight minutes in every contest against Michigan, all three of which were close games that saw Michigan State trailing almost 10 minutes into the second half.

Though some of it was likely due to injuries, Tom Izzo is probably glad he shoved Kithier into the spotlight. His game is similar to that of Ward’s, which is expected from a forward. He has been married to the post, so much that he hasn’t even sniffed the three-point line. Although he hasn’t had the minutes to prove himself just yet, Kithier made nearly 80 percent of his shots on the season. His career-high was eight points against Minnesota going 4-of-5 from the field, all being layups.

Tillman averaged just under nine minutes and three points his freshman year compared to Kithier’s nearly six (9.5 post-Ward injury) and 1.6. Per 40 minutes, Tillman averaged 13 points and just over 12 rebounds compared to Kithier’s nearly 11 and nine.

The leap Tillman showed between his freshman and sophomore years was similar in Kithier’s season. Kithier is by no means guaranteed a starting spot and would likely need a few players to get hurt before that would happen, but he showed improvement in just a few games.

As previously mentioned, Kithier might not have been in the best basketball shape of his life and is likely hitting the weights as this column is being written. Tillman showed up needing to lose weight, and boy did he do that. The forward now weighs a sturdy 245 points and has no problem getting up and down the court.

Gaining 15-20 pounds would do Kithier some justice. He currently stands at 225 pounds and will need some more muscle to dominate the post as well as someone like Ward.

After the departures of Goins and Ward the starting forwards next year will likely be Tillman, Henry and Brown or Bingham. Izzo has likely already made up his mind as to who will fill that last spot and there’s even a chance Rocket Watts could be on the court alongside Langford and Winston. Kithier’s chances of starting are bleak, but his time on the court should increase.

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Kithier isn’t a threat to Tillman or Henry, but he is going to be doing everything in his power to get more time on the floor. No matter what happens, there will be two bigs on the bench ready to run circles around their opponents. A better and more physical team will establish itself in East Lansing this next year.