Michigan State enters the 2017-18 season as a contender for the NCAA Championship led by Big 10 Preseason Player of the Year, Miles Bridges.
Bridges was one of seven players last year to average more than 16 PPG, 8 RPG, 1.5 BPG, and shoot 38% from 3 on more than 100 3PAs. He has a great shot IQ and is highly efficient as 88% of his shots are in the paint or threes, where he made 59% and 39%, respectively.
However, Bridges will not be able to carry this team to a Championship by himself. Michigan State’s success will be determined by the play of Cassius Winston and Nick Ward.
Cassius Winston is a 6’1” sophomore point guard, who, among returning players, had the 2nd highest assist rate last season. He is an outstanding passer and plays with great pace, but he had to split time at point guard with Lourawls Nairn Jr. The Spartans won games when Winston made plays. They were 15-4 when Winston recorded 5+ assists and a dreadful 5-11 when he was under 5 assists.
Tom Izzo needs Winston running the point – all game.
Michigan State, offensively, wants to make excellent passes leading to easier shots. Over the last three seasons, they have the highest assist rate of any team in D1. Last season, the Spartans were 11-3 when they assisted on more than 66% of their baskets and 9-12 when under this mark.
As decisive as passing was to Michigan State’s success last year, defensive rebounding was just as vital. Since 2009, Tom Izzo’s teams have finished in the top 35 in defensive rebounding, but that ended last year. They weren’t even in the top 75.
When center, Nick Ward, had 4+ defensive rebounds in a game the team was 13-4. They were 7-10 when Ward was held under this mark.
Miles Bridges is an outstanding defensive rebounder, but it was Ward rebounding the ball that took Michigan State to the next level. Proof?
The Spartans were 8-8 when Bridges had 7+ defensive rebounds and 6-6 when under 7 defensive rebounds. Compare this with the Spartan’s 13-4 record when Ward records 4 or more defensive rebounds. Ward had 68% more defensive rebounds in wins vs. losses. Bridges just 7% more in wins.
Per Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn), Michigan State was 22 points per 100 possessions better with Ward on the court than off the court last season.
Ward is a broad bodied center who runs the floor as well as any big at that size. He was a matchup nightmare for opposing teams last season, especially in the low post. He is the only player in the last eight years to attempt 200+ free throws while averaging less than 20 minutes per game.
How good can the Spartans be this year?
They will be the team to beat if Winston and Ward play to their ability.
Last year, they were 15-4 when either Winston had 5+ assists or Ward had 4+ defensive rebounds. When neither played reached these marks they struggled to a 5-11 record. This is the difference between a Championship contender and team that doesn’t even make the field of 68.
They add a top prospect in 6’11” forward, Jaren Jackson. He is a stretch 4 with great length and a 7’4” wingspan – moving Bridges to the 3. Jackson has range and will make highlight tape plays at the rim on both sides of the ball. He stuffed the stat sheet in his first game as a Spartan – totaling 13 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks, and 2 steals.
Rounding out the starting rotation is Josh Langford. Their exceptional front court will create many open looks for shooters on the perimeter. Langford is the perfect fit as he shot 52% on catch and shoot wing 3s last season.
Tom Izzo will be cutting down the nets on April 2, 2018 in San Antonio for his second NCAA Championship.