Michigan State’s Freshmen Will be This Season’s Catalysts

Posted by Alex Moscoso on October 25th, 2016

As another exciting Big Ten season approaches, Tom Izzo, the league’s most accomplished and celebrated figure, finds his program in the familiar position as the favorite. What’s different this year is that the longtime Michigan State head coach brings something he’s never had into this season – a top-five recruiting class (according to 247sports). While that fact may surprise some, it shouldn’t. Izzo has had his fair share of individual blue-chip prospects in the past, but he’s never snagged so many at once nor has he been considered a recruiting virtuoso like John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski. Rather, he’s previously expressed his frustration with the seedier aspects of chasing commitments from 17-year olds but he’s since adjusted his recruiting approach which has culminated in an incoming group of four top 50 players – two of whom are McDonald’s All-Americans. This talented group joins enough returning veterans that the Spartans are once again poised to challenge for a Big Ten championship.

Tom Izzo has his highest-ranked recruiting class coming into a season with big expectations.

Tom Izzo has his highest-ranked recruiting class coming into a season with big expectations.

This year’s freshmen class includes four exceptional players: Miles Bridges (#12), Josh Langford (#20), Cassius Winston (#33), and Nick Ward (#41). Aside from that notable injection of talent, it is a balanced class with each player filling a specific position on the floor. As the crown jewel of the class, Bridges – a bouncy yet physical combo forward who can finish above the rim – is the freshman who will be ready to contribute from day one. Langford is a big-bodied combo guard who likes driving to the rim and proved he could play among elite players when he scored 12 points in 15 minutes of action at the McDonald’s All-American game. Winston is a prototypical point guard with a well-rounded offensive skill set, but what makes him most attractive are his intangibles — the Detroit product led his high school team to four state championships. Finally, Ward is the true big man of the class. The wide-bodied Gahanna, Ohio, native has exceptional hands, has dropped 20 pounds since his last high school season, and says “I’m in the best shape of my life.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Way-Too-Early Power Rankings in the Big Ten

Posted by Brendan Brody on April 6th, 2016

The “Way-Too-Early” part of doing power rankings predicting the next Big Ten season is even more difficult this year. That’s because those players who declare for the NBA Draft but do not sign with an agent can decide to return to school as late as the last week in May. So even though it’s likely that things will change between now and early summer, here’s our early rundown of how things look heading into next season.

Michigan State and Bryn Forbes Should Expect to be at the Top of the Big Ten Again Next Season (USA Today Images)

Michigan State Will Say Goodbye to Several But Should Expect to be at the Top of the Big Ten Again Next Season (USA Today Images)

  1. Michigan State: Even if Deyonta Davis decides to leave after his freshman season, Michigan State has another loaded class coming to East Lansing. Miles Bridges and Josh Langford should be special from the start, and even though the losses of Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello will sting, the returns of Eron Harris, Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis should lessen the blow considerably.
  2. Wisconsin: After an underwhelming junior season, it just doesn’t seem likely that Nigel Hayes will leave Madison early. Even if he does depart, though, four other starters will be back as the program gets a full offseason with Greg Gard leading the way. Expect the Badgers to once again be in the mix for the Big Ten crown.
  3. Indiana: We know that Yogi Ferrell is finished (graduation) but we don’t know for sure about Troy Williams, Thomas Bryant or OG Anunoby. Chances are the Hoosiers won’t slip much if at least two of those three come back along with expected returnees James Blackmon, Jr. and Robert Johnson.
  4. Michigan: There’s a lot to like here with potentially all five starters returning to Ann Arbor next season. The keys seems to be whether Zak Irvin can be consistent for a full season and whether Marc Donnal can make additional strides. If they can, the Wolverines should be a Top 25 team. Read the rest of this entry »
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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 15th, 2016

bracketprep22

On Monday and Tuesday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: Monday (East and West); Tuesday (South and Midwest). Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@rtcMWregion).

Midwest Region

Favorite: #2 Michigan State (30-5, 13-5 Big Ten). They aren’t the top seed in the region (more on that later), but the Spartans are as hot as any team in the nation entering the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State’s only blemish over its last 13 games is a one-point loss in overtime at Purdue, a surge that may not have earned them appropriate respect in the RPI (#11) but has done so in advanced rating systems (KenPom #3, Sagarin #2). Any Tom Izzo team is scary in March, but one led by a potential National Player of the Year (Denzel Valentine) evolves into an even more frightening tier of “opponent no team wants to face.” Oh, and their most likely challenger for the title of Midwest favorite knows this reality all too well – top-seeded Virginia has been bounced from each of the last two Tournaments by the Spartans. Michigan State is #2 in seed only in this Midwest Region.

Fresh off a Big Ten tournament title, Michigan State is as hot as any team in the field of 68. (Photo: AP)

Fresh off a Big Ten tournament title, Michigan State is as hot as any team in the field of 68. (Photo: AP)

Should They Falter: #1 Virginia (26-7, 13-5 ACC). Michigan State’s anointment as region favorite has little to do with any deficiencies exhibited by Virginia. Aside from a two-week stretch in early January in which the Cavaliers lost three of four, Tony Bennett’s team has been stellar from November to March. Like the Spartans, they too are in the top four in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy rating systems; unlike the Spartans, they have repeatedly proven capable of beating some of the nation’s best teams: Virginia owns five victories over teams that earned a #3 seed or better – four more than the Spartans. Making the Final Four could well require an exorcism of recent March demons by defeating Michigan State in the Elite Eight, but ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, and Anthony Gill form a leading trio capable of guiding the Cavaliers past any team in the field. Believe it.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 14th, 2016

Seven Big Ten teams made their way into the 2016 NCAA Tournament, which is the same number that made it there last year. Six of the same seven teams are in, with Michigan making a trip after missing out last season. Here are some quick takeaways on how the bracket shakes up for the league.

Troy Williams and Indiana may get a chance to play Kentucky after all if the bracket holds. (Getty).

Troy Williams and Indiana may get a chance to play Kentucky after all if the bracket holds. (Getty).

  • Border War: They played one of the most iconic regular season games of the last 25 years, yet Indiana and Kentucky have not played since 2012 mainly due to disagreements about location. This silent period could change as the Hoosiers and the Wildcats are placed one win away from each other as the #4 and #5 seeds in the East Region. If Indiana can get past a tricky Chattanooga team (that beat Illinois), and if Kentucky can overcome plucky Stony Brook, this may be the most compelling Second Round matchup in the entire NCAA Tournament.
  • Michigan Survives Bubble, Heads to Dayton: One of the most talked about bubble teams over the last couple of weeks was Michigan. The Wolverines, one of the last teams to make the field of 68, received a trip to Dayton to battle Tulsa. Get past the Golden Hurricane on Wednesday night and Michigan will travel to Brooklyn on Friday, where Notre Dame awaits.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan State 66, Purdue 62

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan State edged Purdue for the B1G crown. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

Michigan State edged Purdue for the B1G crown. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  1. Michigan State’s front line was up the challenge. In Purdue’s blowout victories over Illinois and Michigan this weekend its massive trio of AJ Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas combined for 67 points (on 36-of-55 FG) and 44 rebounds. Hammons was especially dominant, pouring in 27 points against the Wolverines and looking altogether unstoppable within 10 feet. On Sunday, it was a different story. The Spartans threw every big body they could at the Boilermakers – including seldom-used senior Colby Wollenman – and never allowed Purdue’s lethal frontcourt to take over. All told, Matt Costello, Deyonta Davis, Gavin Schilling and Wollenman held the three-headed monster to just 26 points on 10-of-25 shooting, which – combined with the Boilermakers’ ugly performance from behind the arc (3-of-15 3FG) – proved to be the difference. Costello was especially great, bodying up Hammons each time down the floor and coming up with several huge blocks to seal the victory.
  2. Denzel Valentine is special in late-game situations. Between his ability to handle the ball, make quick decisions and knock down big shots, Denzel Valentine gives Michigan State something few other teams have: a steady hand in late-game situations. That asset was on full display Sunday, with Valentine knocking down an impossible double-clutch jumper with just under two minutes to play, then securing a pair of big rebounds to ice the victory. Even his ability to take the ball up the floor without making careless mistakes – to force the opposition to foul – cannot be overlooked. On its quest for another Final Four, Michigan State will surely face a few more close, taut games likes the ones it played against Maryland and Purdue this weekend. Having a late-game conductor like Valentine could wind up being the difference between a very good season and a banner-worthy, great one.
  3. Despite the loss, Purdue is playing its best basketball. Make no mistake – Purdue is still in excellent shape heading into the NCAA Tournament. If not for some very poor outside shooting (3-of-15 3FG), the Boilermakers – backed by an enormous home crowd in Bankers Life Fieldhouse – would probably be the Big Ten Tournament champions. Not only is AJ Hammons playing his best basketball of the season, but Matt Painter’s club is consistently earning trips to the free throw line (39 attempts against Michigan and Michigan State combined). Purdue was also superb on the defensive end this weekend, holding both Illinois and the Wolverines to well below one point per possession, and nearly doing the same against the explosive Spartans. With a top 25 national ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency, along with one of the best frontcourts in the country, the Boilermakers should be a real threat to reach Houston.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan State 64, Maryland 61

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Three Key Takeaways

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 12: Deyonta Davis #23 of the Michigan State Spartans rebounds against Robert Carter #4 of the Maryland Terrapins in the semifinals of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 12, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Deyonta Davis and the Spartans staved off Maryland in Saturday’s semifinal. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

  1. Michigan State’s defense can win games. After scoring 41 points in the opening 20 minutes, Michigan State’s offense struggled mightily in the second half, mustering just 23 total points and failing to rediscover its high-efficiency transition game. And yet, thanks to one of the best defensive halves of basketball they have played all season, the Spartans managed to survive. Tom Izzo’s group held Maryland to just one made field goal in the final 10:27 of play, a stretch of grind-it-out, physical basketball that culminated in two huge defensive stops to seal the win. Senior forward Matt Costello, who helped key the effort, cited his team’s defense as “the only reason we won.” For most of the season, Michigan State’s exceptionally efficient offense has carried it to victory. On Saturday afternoon, the Spartans proved that their defense can also bail them out.
  2. The Spartans’ half-court offense can be worrisome against large opponents. Like Purdue – the last team to knock off Michigan State – Maryland is one of the largest teams in the country, boasting a front line with enough strength and length to frustrate nearly any opponent it faces. In the second half, the Terrapins did just that, limiting the Spartans’ transition game and forcing them to score over its massive bodies in the half-court. Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Damonte Dodd and company allowed Michigan State very few opportunities in the paint, limiting it to 41.9 percent shooting (13-of-31) from inside the arc and causing visible frustration on the part of Spartans players and coaches. Izzo’s club still won, sure, but perhaps Maryland’s defensive effort gives future Michigan State opponents a possible formula for victory.
  3. Maryland will be fine. Much was made of the Terrapins’ late-season struggles, a stretch from mid-February through the end of the regular season during which they lost four of six games and failed to come up with solutions on the offensive end. Some pundits even suggested that Mark Turgeon’s club is among the most likely potential NCAA Tournament upset victims. And while that could still be the case – this is March Madness we’re talking about – it won’t be because Maryland has completely lost its mojo. Despite only winning a single game in Indianapolis, the Terrapins looked far more confident in both their 11-point win over Nebraska and their narrow loss against the Spartans. After scorching the nets to the tune of 1.37 points per possession on Friday, Maryland flexed its defensive muscle on Saturday, holding the country’s most efficient offense to just 23 second half points. Turgeon seemed genuinely relieved in the postgame press conference, as if his team had turned a corner in spite of the outcome: “Everybody in Maryland basketball feels good – feels better than we did coming into this week.” If those good feelings continue into the NCAA Tournament, the Terrapins may have a very nice March ahead of them.

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Big Ten Tournament: Semifinal Saturday Storylines

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 12th, 2016

A bit of normalcy returned to Indianapolis on Friday afternoon, as three of the four top seeds advanced in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan was the only underdog to remain in the field, as Purdue, Michigan State, and Maryland all notched impressive wins as favorites. The two semifinal matchups today could go a number of different ways, so here’s a look at some of the biggest things to consider on Semifinal Saturday in the Big Ten.

Maryland and Melo Trimble Looked Impressive in Taking Down Nebraska Friday (USA Today Images)

Maryland and Melo Trimble Looked Impressive in Taking Down Nebraska Friday (USA Today Images)

  • Will the Real Maryland Please Stand Up: Anyone who watched the first half of Maryland’s victory over Nebraska last night saw why the Terrapins were ranked in the top 10 for most of the season. They made an ungodly 9-of-10 shots from behind the arc and scored a whopping 54 points before intermission. In the second half, we saw why they’ve also been sometimes underwhelming, as Nebraska was able to cut the lead down to six points near the end of the game. The Terps have lost seven games this season, many of which came by playing down to the competition once they became comfortable. Can Mark Turgeon‘s club put together a complete effort and beat the hottest team in the Big Ten today? Or will it only show flashes of brilliance and in the process end up as a #4 or #5 seed next week despite having arguably the most talented starting lineup in the country? Anything is on the table today.

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Michigan State Grows Stronger Ahead of Selection Sunday

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Tom Izzo’s disappointment in the first half against Ohio State on Friday might be the best indication yet of just how well his Spartans are playing. Less than a week after beating the Buckeyes in East Lansing, Michigan State controlled the opening 20 minutes from start to finish, taking a seven-point lead into the locker room and holding its bubble-bound opponent to just 26 points on 27 shots. “I thought we got off to a bit of a sluggish start,” Izzo said. “We didn’t feel like we were in sync the whole first half.” His team went on to dominate, of course, winning by 27 points and completing a three-game season sweep of the Buckeyes by an average margin of 20.3 PPG. The victory was more than just a necessary step toward a Big Ten Tournament title, though. On a night when the threes weren’t falling, Michigan State – in one of its best defensive performances of the year – took an important stride toward invulnerability heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue improving. (http://247sports.com/)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue to get better. (http://247sports.com/)

Guard Bryn Forbes entered Friday as the nation’s best individual three-point shooter on the nation’s best three-point shooting team, having knocked down more than 50 percent of his 200 attempts from behind the arc. On nights that he and Denzel Valentine (a top 50 three-point shooter in his own right) get hot, Michigan State is incredibly difficult to beat. Friday was not one of those nights; the Spartans shot just 8-of-23 on three-point field goals, and Forbes never got going. For Izzo, it could not have worked out any better. “The best thing that happened was Bryn struggled, best thing for our future, because we had to learn to play without,” he said. Instead of blowing out the Buckeyes with lights-out perimeter shooting, the #2 seeded Spartans blew them out by pounding the glass and finding easy looks inside. Already a top 20 offensive and defensive rebounding team, Michigan State ripped down 14 offensive boards (41.2% OReb) and prevented many Ohio State second-chances on the other end. To score, the Spartans used a combination of high-percentage transition looks, easy put-backs and well-run set plays to blow open the lead after halftime, opening the final 20 minutes on a 14-2 run and never looking back. Spartan big men Deyonta Davis, Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling complemented Valentine’s predictably excellent play by combining for 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Junior guard Eron Harris, playing in his hometown for the first time since high school, poured in 13 points of his own. College basketball’s most efficient offense was as efficient as ever (1.27 points per possession), even without its usual perimeter prowess.

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Big Ten Tournament Takeaways: Friday Night

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

After Purdue’s blowout victory over Illinois in Friday’s afternoon session, Michigan State and Maryland followed suit with a pair of drubbings of their own. The Spartans used a 14-2 run early in the second half to ease past Ohio State, 81-54, while the Terrapins shot the lights out against Nebraska on their way to an 11-point victory in the late game. Here are four takeaways from quarterfinal Friday in the Big Ten Tournament.

Maryland took care of business against Nebraska on Friday (Kiichiro Sato, Lincoln Journal Star)

Maryland took care of business against Nebraska on Friday. (Kiichiro Sato, Lincoln Journal Star)

Michigan State: The Spartans won by 27 points despite shooting poorly for a large stretch of the contest – which probably says something about just how good they are right now. Denzel Valentine was his usual versatile self, scoring 19 points to go along with nine rebounds and eight assists, but it was the play of Deyonta Davis (12 points, seven rebounds), Matt Costello (10 points) and Eron Harris (13 points) – along with stellar defense from start to finish – that made the difference. Watching Iowa and Indiana go down early in the tournament may have also had something to do with the Spartans’ dominant victory: “We saw that those two teams didn’t come out with as much fire as they had throughout the season… we had to be ready to play today,” Costello said afterwards. Next up for Michigan State is a rematch of last season’s Big Ten semifinal against Maryland.

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Big Ten Tournament Storylines: Quarterfinal Friday

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 11th, 2016

We’re now down to eight teams remaining in the Big Ten Tournament after a wild Thursday resulted in significant upsets to Iowa and Wisconsin. Today the top four seeds will take the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse hoping to avoid the same fate that befell the #5 and #6 seeds. As we head into the quarterfinals, here are four storylines to watch during the tournament’s third day in Indianapolis.

Malcolm Hill and the Illini will have to hope that the slipper still fits against Purdue Purdue on Friday. (USA Today Images)

Malcolm Hill and his Illini will have to hope that the slipper still fits against Purdue Purdue on Friday. (USA Today Images)

  1. Can Illinois Keep It Going?: Even with Iowa finishing the season with a whimper, #12 Illinois’ win over the Hawkeyes on Thursday might be the biggest Big Ten upset since Rutgers beat Wisconsin last season. An impressive game from Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn along with continued strong play from freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands could get the Illini into the tournament semifinals. Remember that John Groce’s unit — thanks to 52 points from Hill and Dunn — has already beaten Purdue once this year.  Read the rest of this entry »
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