Tom Izzo and Michigan State have been more lamb than lion the last three Marches. A stunning loss to Middle Tennessee State in 2016, a second-round exit against a superior Kansas side in 2017, and a brick-laden dud against Syracuse last year have made the East Lansing air a bit more desperate than usual.
So much talent wasted. The Spartans saw National Player of the Year Denzel Valentine and lottery picks Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. come through and fall far short of the high postseason standards. This a stark difference from the perceived DNA of the program: overcoming obstacles and reaching the Final Four through grit and determination as much as talent.
This season, though, has been a return to the vintage MSU years. A balanced and deep team getting contributions from all angles. Role players stepping up to complement the stars. Balanced, almost to a fault.
Candidly, I believe this has been the most fun Spartans unit to watch in a long, long time. And for all those fans who yearned for those perceived blue-collar glory days, it’s been a breath of fresh air.
But there can be way too much of a good thing. With Nick Ward fracturing his hand in a win against Ohio State yesterday, two of Izzo’s top three players are now sidelines. Josh Langford, who was averaging 15.0 points/game, is out for the year after undergoing foot surgery. Ward, who is averaging 15.1 points/game, is out indefinitely. There is some hope he can return this year, but time will tell.
Michigan State is tied atop the Big Ten with rival Michigan. They will play twice down the stretch, and those results will likely determine the conference winner. A tough road just got tougher. Those green-and-white enthusiasts with a special kink for difficulty are really feeling it in their pleasure centers this morning.
All hope is not lost, though. Point guard Cassius Winston takes a backseat to no one in the country. And his supporting cast, though slightly misshapen and rough, is capable of competing for all titles, including the national.
The burden carried by senior guard and defensive wizard Matt McQuaid will get bigger. Sophomore big man Xavier Tillman will get more minutes and need to score. So too will little-used freshman Thomas Kithier, who is raw but has a high motor.
No one personifies what this season is about nor will determine its ultimate success more than Kenny Goins. The 6-7 forward is already one of the most productive former walk-ons in college basketball history. He has a chance to sit alongside Jeff Hornacek, Scottie Pippen, and Cameron Mills in the top tier of walk-on success by leading MSU to tournament success.
Goins averaged 2.1 points/game last year. This year he’s scoring 7.3 per, leads the team with 8.9 rebounds/game, and is dishing out 2.3 assists. He tied the school record for blocks in a game with eight against Indiana, where he showcased his versatility, scoring 12 points, getting eight boards, and collecting six assists. He’d attempted all of 15 threes coming into the year. This season he’s made 27.
Hanging all hope on Goins is not where any Spartan thought they’d be at this point of the season. But here they are. Keep winning and a No. 1 seed is possible. And if it means crunch time brings an outlandish Foster Loyer-Kyle Ahrens-Kenny Goins-Matt McQuaid-Thomas Kithier rotation to the court, so be it. It worked, somehow and some way, against Ohio State Sunday.
Michigan State has suffered some bad breaks. This is great news for a certain segment of the fanbase, who prefer things to to be broken. Izzo has plenty of glue to go around. This project is taking a far different shape than the easier ones of recent seasons and, considering how those have ended, it may be a good thing.