While Michigan State as a whole is busy undergoing the biggest college sports scandal since the lid blew on Jerry Sandusky six years ago, the Spartan basketball team is cruising through the regular season with one of its most talented rosters ever. Although Tom Izzo’s team lost to both Ohio State and Michigan earlier this month in addition to very nearly losing to Rutgers, the Spartans have a chance to get back in the No. 1 seed conversation if they can knock off fellow juggernaut Purdue on February 10.
Until that clash of the titans, Michigan State is expected to easily dispatch Penn State, Indiana, and Iowa, but if everything always went according to plan, college basketball wouldn’t be very fun. That’s where our Nittany Lions come in. Winners of two games in a row and back at full strength since Josh Reaves returned to action six days ago, they could use a monster road win to storm onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. Winning at the Breslin Center would qualify as just that, but Penn State will need a lot of things to go right just to have a shot at the upset.
To get a better handle on what the Lions are up against on Wednesday night, we talked to McLain Moberg of SB Nation’s Michigan State blog, The Only Colors. Thanks go out to McLain for answering our questions during these troubling times.
Black Shoe Diaries: After a rough stretch against Ohio State, Rutgers, and Michigan, it seems like the Spartans have righted the ship with four straight wins. What’s been the biggest factor in the turnaround?
The Only Colors: So far this year, my work schedule hasn’t actually gotten in the way of any Spartan basketball games. I’ve either been at the home games or watching the away games on television. Prior to their three-game slump against the teams you already mentioned, MSU beat Maryland 91-61 at home. The one thing I saw in that game that I didn’t see in the next three games was energy. It looked as if MSU lacked the energy, effort, and desire that they showed all year long. A very weird slump where fans could argue that players were simply going through the motions. I’m not sure what finally made this team kick it back into gear but when I showed up at the Breslin Center versus Indiana, the crowd was loud and the players were proud (man am I corny). That night they shot 54 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point land, and limited themselves to their usual 13 turnovers. You saw guys diving for loose balls, fighting for rebounds, and hustling at all times. Which is something that was definitely missing during their slump.
BSD: Joshua Langford has taken great strides as a scorer in his sophomore year, but leading up to Sunday’s 19-point outburst at Maryland, he had four games in a row with fewer than 10 points. Is Michigan State doing enough to get him the ball?
TOC: Langford is a fan favorite. He is definitely one of the most exciting players to watch for the Spartans. I’ve been on the record saying he is Michigan State’s best two-way player. He can score in more ways than one. The sophomore guard has an excellent mid-range game and is a great on-ball defender. To answer your question I think he’s been given ample opportunities to score the ball all year long. When Winston or Tum Tum run plays at the top of the key, the ball almost always goes through Langford’s hands at some point; he is either open and shoots or passes it off. I’m not sure his lack of scoring the past few games is because MSU has failed to include him in the offense, but rather the defense keying on him and Miles Bridges as huge threats outside as well as inside of the paint.
BSD: Bridges continues to look like a future NBA lottery pick with the way he can score from anywhere. However, with almost six three-pointers attempted per game, is he settling for jumpers too often instead of using his strength and athleticism in the paint?
TOC: Bridges is a phenomenal player. The man can score wherever and whenever he feels like. Sometimes I watch him the play and the old phrase “man among boys” comes to mind. I would love it if he used his size more often, but I’m not out on the court like he is. I can’t see what he sees as a player, so as a fan or analyst maybe I’m missing something. I think it would be more beneficial to Michigan State if he started driving to the lane more, which then resulted in him shooting more free throws and everyone knows that’s only going to result in more points. And who doesn’t love points? Yes, I’d really like that. Do I think it’s going to happen, though? No.
Miles deciding to shoot when and where he wants isn’t a bad thing. He has the green light and rightfully so. Stop and think about how much he does for MSU other than points scored. He passes, he rebounds, he steals, he dives for loose balls, he blocks shots, and everything else on top of that. Bridges gives Spartan Nation 110 percent every time he steps on the court. He is one guy fans should never worry about because — trust me when I say this — he does everything humanly possible to help this team win and the fan base still wants more out of him.
BSD: As a huge shot-blocking threat who is hitting 44 percent of his three-pointers, is Jaren Jackson Jr. destined to leave school after just one season? Have we seen his ceiling as a college player yet?
TOC: This Michigan State team is good. It can beat you so many different ways it’s ridiculous. Jackson is another one of those ways. A guy who is extremely long, can rebound, can block anyone on the court, can shoot free throws, and lay the ball in from deep. Wow. His resume as a player is only going to get better. I don’t think he’s hit his ceiling yet. Not by a long shot. Jackson has simply scratched the surface of what type of guy he will be in the pros. Is he a one-and-done? Yes, but so was Miles Bridges and he’s still wearing the green and white. Anything is possible but I think Jackson enters the draft after this season.
BSD: Do you think Tom Izzo holds onto his job beyond this season considering his connection to the sexual assault scandal that has recently come to light?
TOC: Michigan State is under investigation for numerous sexual assault allegations. It started with Larry Nassar and has led them to other names on campus like Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio. I have no idea if Izzo will keep his job, retire early, or go coach somewhere else following this season. I’m also really not at liberty to say. As the investigation is still pending and there is still loads of information yet to be uncovered. For now the best thing anyone can do is wait and see.
BSD: Michigan State will be a heavy favorite on Wednesday, but Penn State is playing its best basketball of the year. Who wins the game?
TOC: I have Michigan State winning this game 85-70. MSU continues to roll and extends its winning streak to five games. The starting lineup for MSU (Cassius Winston, Langford, Bridges, Nick Ward, and Jackson) shows up big time and wins another game at the Breslin, a place where, outside of losing to Michigan, they have been unstoppable.
Thanks again to McLain for taking the time to help us better understand Michigan State basketball. For more year-round coverage of the Spartans, be sure to check out The Only Colors!