Coming off a loss to Michigan in which it held a 14-point second-half lead, Penn State heads east to Philadelphia for a special home matchup against Michigan State. Instead of the spacious Bryce Jordan Center, this game will be played in front of a sold-out crowd at the legendary Palestra.
The Nittany Lions will need all the help they can get for the crowd, because the Spartan squad coming in from East Lansing, while just as young as Pat Chambers’s team, is arguably way more talented. The trio of Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins, has performed well so far, but they haven’t been able to match the production of Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, and Cassius Winston.
To discuss more about how Michigan State’s youngsters have risen quickly to the top of the Big Ten, we brought in McLain Moberg of The Only Colors to answer some questions.
Black Shoe Diaries: We knew it was going to be a transition year for the Spartans with Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello, and Deyonta Davis all moving on from the program. Where has the team struggled and what has gone better than expected for this new-look squad?
The Only Colors: Michigan State lacked any identity in basketball for a change, they instantly didn’t have any size which hurt their defense/rebounding, keys that are usually the makeup of Spartan teams. With four freshmen arguably being the Spartans best players, and Eron Harris being their most talented senior, it was going to be tough sledding for Michigan State early on. The turning point for this Tom Izzo team was the injury to Bridges, I have said in the past that his injury actually helped this team move forward because instead of relying on Miles to make big plays, each and every guy had to find their own role/identity and start to rely on one another in order to play as one unit. While learning to play as one without Bridges, fans saw the lows like when Michigan State lost to Northeastern but then fans also saw the highs like the comeback win vs. Minnesota. Ever since the Minnesota game this unit has looked completely different. Sparty is riding a big wave of momentum which doesn't plan on wearing off anytime soon.
BSD: The biggest key to Michigan State returning to greatness is Miles Bridges. When he’s in the lineup this year, he’s the Spartans’ leading scorer, but an ankle injury held him out of seven games, including a disappointing loss to Northeastern. He looked decent in limited action against Rutgers, so will Bridges be ready for full-time work against Penn State?
TOC: Tom Izzo had a plan to keep Bridges’s minutes to somewhere between 16 and 18. He did just that making sure Miles clocked in at 17 minutes. In Miles’s mind he is already ready for full time work, but Izzo feels differently. I do not foresee Izzo rushing Miles back at all. As you stated, the biggest key to the Spartans’ greatness is Bridges so there is no need to risk re-injury by him overplaying. In his first few Big Ten outings I expect anything more than 20 minutes per game.
BSD: Michigan State’s second-leading scorer is also a freshman in Nick Ward. He doesn’t have the range or versatility of Bridges, but when Ward is on the floor, he dominates with his rebounding, shot blocking, and ability to draw fouls. However, he’s only averaging 19 minutes played per game this season. How does Tom Izzo find more work for the big man?
TOC: Of the 13 guys on Michigan State's roster, 11 of them are averaging at least 10 minutes per game. During the time when the Spartans had no Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter, or Miles Bridges, other guys’ minutes had to go up. In Tom's eyes it was a necessary move in order to preserve Nick Ward, since with Miles out he was Michigan State's go-to guy. I think once Bridges is fully reinserted back into the starting lineup for full-time minutes, that we will see a small uptick in Ward's playing time; somewhere between 22 to 25 minutes a game.
BSD: With more than six assists per game, Cassius Winston appears to already be a better option at point guard than Tum Tum Nairn. How has Winston looked on the court so far, and does he have the potential to improve his scoring output?
TOC: Cassius Winston is what fans will call a “true point guard”, his first job as point guard is to run the offense and set up his teammates for baskets. Winston does exactly that. While his strength doesn't happen to be scoring at will, he can run the offense in the halfcourt as well as in transition. His passes can leave fans in awe. Cassius is currently 18th in the nation for assists per game, which is astounding for a freshman. As for his scoring output, he is a point guard before a shooter. I say that because this seems to be his mentality, as he has only attempted 94 field goals on the year. His scoring output could certainly improve but I'm not certain that is his top priority.
BSD: On a team full of youngsters, Eron Harris can be an unsung hero with the three-point shooting and experience he brings to the table. Has Harris stepped into a leadership role this year? How important is his shooting to a team that generally works close to the basket?
TOC: Eron Harris has had his fair share of ups and downs already this year. He struggled early on. He blew up in a controversial game vs. Florida Gulf Coast, then went back down again after that. He was just recently on fire vs Rutgers where he dropped 24 points and went 5-for-8 from deep. He is very hit or miss right now. Spartan fans can only hope he takes the momentum he built for himself in the Rutgers game and move forward with it. As for being a leader, I haven't seen much of anything that would suggest he is the sole leader of this team, but it's much too early to tell who that guy is yet. As far as his shooting goes, it is very important, Bridges hasn't fully developed a jumper yet, and Ward's game is living down low on the block. If you’re considering those two guys to be top three on this team — the third being Harris — then it is vital he finds his shot like he did vs. Rutgers and remains consistent if he wants to provide a much-needed lift from the field for this team.
BSD: How will Michigan State do in the Palestra on Saturday afternoon?
TOC: Michigan State is going to carry its newfound momentum into Palestra on Saturday and leave with a victory. Nick Ward will continue to dominate, per the usual, while Miles Bridges being in the lineup will once again provide the energy that this team may have lacked in his absence. During the Rutgers game we saw the type of energy and athleticism he can provide. In the long run this helps the Spartans in ways that do not show up in the box score. Eron Harris found his stroke vs. Rutgers and plans on bringing that with him into Pennsylvania.
Michigan State 74, Penn State 72
Thanks so much to McLain Moberg for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on Michigan State Basketball all season long, check out The Only Colors!