The Arizona Wildcats will take on the Michigan State Spartans Friday in Honolulu, Hawaii in the Armed Forces Classic.
We’re already familiar enough with the Wildcats, but we wanted to get more insight on what to expect from Michigan State, so who better to ask than our friends and MSU experts over at The Only Colors (the Michigan State SB Nation blog)? You can read what we had to say about Arizona.
Here’s what managing editor Austin Smith had to say about the Spartans and their upcoming matchup with Arizona:
Q: What are the general expectations for Michigan State this season?
Smith: This is a really talented Michigan State team, but is also a very unbalanced one. From point through small forward, I think MSU is as deep and talented as most teams in the country but lack of size in the front court (we'll get to that in second) is a very real concern and tempers my expectations.
As always, Tom Izzo has put together a schedule that will raise Spartan Nation's collective blood pressure to unhealthy levels. Obviously there's this game against Arizona, but Duke and Kentucky also loom in the non-con, as does a potential date with Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis. If MSU can manage to split those four games, it would be an enormous success. More likely though, they're looking at 1-3 but they'll learn from it and, frankly, we've seen worse, just ask the football team.
In the Big Ten, Wisconsin and Indiana appear to be a step ahead of MSU but this could/should be a top three to five team, in what once again looks like one of the top conferences in the country. All in all, I expect this team to end up near the top of the Big Ten and a 4-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Let's just hope there's no Middle Tennessee waiting for them there.
Q: What are this Michigan State team's perceived strengths and weaknesses?
Smith: This team should be able to score the ball pretty well.
As alluded to earlier, the backcourt is loaded. Eron Harris, Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, and Josh Langford are all talented and versatile scorers. Alvin Ellis III has shown flashes of brilliance (and incompetence) and Tum Tum Nairn is allegedly healthy and has a semi-functioning jumper. Oh, and that Bridges guy apparently is a much better shooter than advertised.
The issues all exist in the frontcourt, namely at center, and it's more about who isn't there than who is. MSU's only two experienced bigs, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, are both potentially gone for the year with knee injuries leaving MSU perilously thin up front.
Right now, it's looking like former walk-on Kenny Goins -- who is listed at 6’6” -- will be starting in the middle with his backup being true freshman Nick Ward. Ward will be a force someday, but at 6'8" 250, conditioning is a big concern. Izzo recruited this team assuming Deyonta Davis would be the anchor in the middle, instead he chose to go to the NBA. I will never fault a kid for going and making money plying his trade, but regardless of the injuries, his presence would turn this team's ceiling from Top 15ish to Top 5ish.
Scoring inside and defending the post is going to be a sore spot until Ward develops and/or Schilling and Carter get healthy, but they should be able to slash, shoot and run with the best of them. Rebounding is also a major concern with the lack of frontcourt size.
Luckily, the four spot should be a huge strength as Miles Bridges might be the most talented freshman Izzo has ever had.
Q: How dominant can we expect Miles Bridges to be?
Hopefully, very. Bridges is potentially a game-changing player, the type that can carry a team.
Physically, he is an absolute specimen. If you haven't done so yet, go ahead and google his dunk highlights. Go ahead, I'll wait right here. As you can see, he is going to humiliate some poor defenders this year. The question is whether he can shoot as consistently as he has in the preseason. If he can, he's going to be a nightmare to guard. Defenders will have to pick their poison: chase him to the corner and give him the chance to rise up or lay off him and let him shoot a three. If he truly can shoot, that's a lose-lose.
The most critical part of his game will be his ability to rebound. MSU fans will remember 6'6" Branden Dawson leading the Big Ten in rebounding and basically playing center during their latest Final Four run. Bridges is a much more gifted offensive player, but with the dearth of height, he's going to have to play a similar role. He should also be an elite weakside shot blocker, another area where MSU will need some help.
He can do it all and will be asked to do so, at least in the frontcourt.
Q: With Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter out, what's the status of Michigan State's front court? Is it in bad shape?
I've sprinkled in bits and pieces about it but it's not ideal. The loss of Davis is bad enough, but is really exacerbated by the injuries to those two you named. The hope is that one or both can be back come conference season, but it's a very real possibility neither will be. The silver lining for Schilling is that he can still be redshirted, as he played as a true freshman.
There are things to like with the guys who remain. Goins played really well in stretches last year, but he isn't much of an offensive threat and you can only hide a 6'6" center for so long. He'll be able to steal minutes against a lot of teams, but is going to struggle against true big men like the ones Arizona has.
Ward is going to have an adjustment period because he isn't a big time athlete and lacks ideal post size, but I'm bullish on his future. He reminds me of Zach Randolph in many respects. He is a solid 250 lbs, has very soft hands around the hoop, but lacks top-end athleticism. By conference play, he'll be a plus player, but for now you can't expect a ton.
Bridges is the X-factor. If he plays Dawson-esque but adds a shooting touch, MSU might be alright. There aren't a ton of teams that play bully-ball anymore -- Indiana and Purdue are notable exceptions -- so more often than not Bridges should be just fine.
It's a thin group so foul trouble will spell disaster any time they fall into it.
Q: Are there any under-the-radar players we should worry about?
I'll say Matt McQuaid, who will be starting on the wing. McQuaid is MSU's best shooter and moonlighted as a backup point guard last year when Denzel Valentine and Tum Tum were each out with their injuries. This season with Tum Tum, Winston, and Harris taking over the ball handling duties, he should play entirely off the ball and really take off.
He's the type of kid who can single-handedly change momentum with his shooting ability. With all of the other backcourt talent on this team, he might slip through the cracks, but make no mistake, he is a very real weapon.
Q: From an outsider's perspective, what's your view on Arizona basketball and this current Arizona team?
Arizona is one of those teams I always pick to go deep in the NCAA Tournament for better or worse. They've put an incredible number of players in the NBA, always seem to have a ton of size and athleticism and have been extremely well-coached with Lute Olson and Sean Miller. It's one of the more consistent programs in the NCAA and is always a big name on the schedule.
This year nothing about that appears to have changed. It's a deep team with a ton of athleticism. I don't know everything about them but at first blush this looks like a team that should be dynamite defensively but might struggle to shoot.
If they can do that, they'll be alright. If not, it might be a long night.
Q: What is your prediction?
Offensively, I don't think the Spartans can afford to caught in a half court battle against Arizona. If shots are falling, they can win that way but what they have in shooters and slashers they lack in big bodies. If things go wrong and the shots aren't falling the offense will get stagnant very quickly. To compensate they have to turn their defense into offense and get out on the break.
If they can make a decent amount of Arizona possessions "one and out" and turn them into transition points they can win this game. That's a tall order given the size disadvantage. However, if there is one coach who can get his guys ready to overcome that, it's Tom Izzo, but it's still a big time challenge.
I think this is a pretty evenly matched game but I'll give the edge to the Wildcats based on their size advantage but would not be surprised if MSU pulls it out.
Thank you to Austin Smith of The Only Colors for answering our questions so thoroughly. You can follow him on Twitter at @ACSmith06.