Michigan State basketball stuck between recent success, bright future

Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, Michigan State basketball (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, Michigan State basketball (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Coming off three straight Big Ten titles, Michigan State basketball had high hopes in 2020-21. But it’s the future that is carrying the hope.

Michigan State shockingly lost seven of their first nine conference games. Here we are in early February and they sit in 13th place in the Big Ten. It’s simply unfathomable to process the fact that a basketball team led by Tom Izzo is second to last in the standings as we approach March. Any hope they have of extending their streak of 22 straight NCAA Tournament berths, an impressive stretch which only trails the runs actively being made by Kansas and Duke, is quickly fading away.

This is a team that is trapped between deeply missing what they lost from last year’s unit and desperately needing the talent that will soon set foot on MSU’s campus.

The impact that Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman had on the program and how important their roles were in winning basketball games is felt now more than ever. Far beyond the 32 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and 2 blocks per game that they contributed each time they laced up their sneakers, their toughness, composure, experience and leadership were key factors to helping MSU win numerous Big Ten titles during their time donning the green and white.

This winter, Spartan fans surely have let their mind wander to a pleasant place where Tillman remains a fixture in the lineup had he decided to return for his senior season. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year wouldn’t have allowed Purdue’s Trevion Williams to score 24 second-half points (MSU inexplicably blew a 17-point lead at home against the Boilermakers). Tillman surely would have made life difficult for bigs such as Pete Nance, Liam Robbins, E.J. Liddell and Luka Garza in those contests — Nance and Garza both posted double-doubles and Robbins and Liddell each went for at least 18 points and eight rebounds.

Not only was Tillman a defensive stalwart but his presence alone was intimidating and it raised the level of play of those around him. There are very few players who Izzo has not had to coach hard. Tillman was one of them because his basketball IQ was excellent, his effort was phenomenal, and he rarely made mistakes. Here’s a guy that is currently a productive NBA starter as a rookie and has the Memphis Grizzlies in the thick of a hunt for a playoff seed. If he’s holding his own against foes in the best league in the world, he would have been dominant locking down opposing Big Ten power forwards and centers throughout the 2020-21 campaign.

Cassius Winston finished his senior year atop the Big Ten’s all-time career assist list (with an astonishing 890). He also was able to crack the list of the 25 best scorers in league history (at 1,969 points). The Spartans have been unable to find a serviceable replacement for him on their roster. They’ve tried Foster Loyer and AJ Hoggard and neither has yet to flourish.

They’ve also attempted to slide Rocket Watts over from shooting guard. When MSU raced out to a 6-0 start, it seemed to be a suitable solution until late December hit and the confidence of Watts disappeared which resulted in his numbers dropping and team success coming to an abrupt halt.

When autumn ended, Boo Buie, D’Mitrik Trice and Marcus Carr ate the Spartan backcourt alive, lighting up MSU for a combined 78 points. Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota dealt MSU three consecutive defeats to close out the 2020 calendar year. That wouldn’t have happened on Winston’s watch.

Incoming freshman Jaden Akins could be the answer. He’s an explosive, long point guard with a ridiculous amount of athleticism (think of a young, unpolished Ja Morant) and the ability to facilitate and create his own shot. He’s landed at Sunrise Christian Academy and is playing some terrific ball for them. He is an exciting prospect who could surpass Loyer, Hoggard and even Watts in the pecking order if they continue to sputter.

Outside of Aaron Henry, the Spartans haven’t had much consistency offensively. Help is on the way in the form of two highly-regarded wings in Max Christie and Pierre Brooks to stretch the floor alongside Akins. Their arrival can’t come soon enough as the Spartans could definitely use the instant scoring punch they are prepared to provide when they step on the court.

There’s a chance that a couple of 2022 recruits could reclassify and join the perimeter trio of Akins, Christie and Brooks next season on the floor of the Breslin Center. Small forward Emoni Bates and bruising center Enoch Boakye would give Michigan State even more firepower (in what could be a class filled with five top-70 recruits) on what has the potential to be a loaded 2021-22 roster.

It’s as if there is a “help wanted” sign hanging outside of the Berkowitz Basketball Complex doors. Unfortunately, Izzo’s coveted reinforcements won’t arrive until the summer of 2021.

Next. Way-too-early depth chart projection for 2021. dark