Michigan State basketball season preview: Pressure mounts on Tom Izzo to deliver national title No. 2

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Michigan State guard Cassius Winston (5) and head coach Tom Izzo talk tactics in the second half of a semifinal game of the NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, April 6. 2019. Texas Tech beat Michigan State, 61-51. (John Autey / MediaNews Group / St. Paul Pioneer Press via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Michigan State guard Cassius Winston (5) and head coach Tom Izzo talk tactics in the second half of a semifinal game of the NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, April 6. 2019. Texas Tech beat Michigan State, 61-51. (John Autey / MediaNews Group / St. Paul Pioneer Press via Getty Images) /

After making a surprise run to the Final Four in the spring and with nearly every key player back in the mix, the pressure is on Tom Izzo and Michigan State to cut down the nets in Atlanta.

When the great college coaches of this generation are mentioned, the names most often put at the top of the list include Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, and Kentucky’s John Calipari. Each of those legendary coaches has built an institution at their respective schools, crafting programs that are capable of contending for national championships each and every year.

One man who isn’t mentioned in that group but definitely belongs is Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. Unlike Krzyzewski and Calipari, Izzo doesn’t regularly attract the nation’s truly elite talent, with the likes of Jabari Parker, Josh Jackson, and Vernon Carey passing on Michigan State for schools like Duke and Kansas.

What Izzo has become a master of is attracting the next tier of recruits, who will often stay in East Lansing for three or four years and become the anchors of Michigan State’s latest national title contender. That was certainly the case a year ago when a Spartans’ team headlined by juniors Cassius Winston and Nick Ward alongside seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid upset one of the most talented Duke teams in history to reach the Final Four.

That Final Four trip was Izzo’s eighth as Spartans’ head coach, which is the fifth most all-time and trails only Krzyzewski and Williams among active coaches. The big difference is that the four men ahead of Izzo have won a combined 20 national championships, while Izzo has just one title with the Spartans.

That championship came all the way back in 2000 when Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson were the stars of a Spartans’ squad that topped Florida for the national title. Michigan State has been a perennial power since then, but the Spartans haven’t been able to get back to the top of the mountain over the past two decades.

That could change this season, with Michigan State poised to enter the season as the nation’s top team and give Izzo arguably his best chance at a championship since Miles Bridges returned for his sophomore year and teamed with another future lottery pick in Jaren Jackson Jr. That Spartans’ squad was caught in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, as well as a damaging Outside the Lines report, and ended the season with a disappointing second-round exit at the hands of Syracuse.

Michigan State will look to avoid that fate this coming season when they bring back nearly all of the key contributors from last season’s Final Four team. Goins and McQuaid did graduate while Ward went pro, but the Spartans should still be a well-oiled machine anchored by National Player of the Year Candidate Cassius Winston.

Winston emerged as a leader in his junior season, averaging 18.8 points per game and 7.5 assists per game as he facilitated the entire offense in East Lansing. While teams like Duke relied on the individual talent of players like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett to generate points, Winston set up his teammates for success with his precision passing and excellent knowledge of the Spartans’ offensive schemes.

Another key leader who should be back for the Spartans is shooting guard Joshua Langford, who missed the end of his junior year with a nasty foot injury. Prior to going down with the foot issue, Langford was second on the team in scoring by dropping in 15 a night while his 40.3 percent three-point percentage enabled the Spartans to stretch the floor.

Getting Langford back will be huge for Michigan State, which also saw freshman wing Aaron Henry step into a big role late in the season. Henry, who infamously got chewed out by Izzo during the team’s first round victory over Bradley, developed into a valuable two-way player whose length became an issue for the opposition on the defensive end of the floor.

The loss of Ward down low will be an issue for Izzo’s team to contend with, but something that could cushion the blow is the continued progression of big man Xavier Tillman. When Ward suffered a finger injury during the conference season, Tillman stepped in and was a highly efficient scorer towards the end of the regular season, reaching double figures in points for the final five games while chipping in 10 rebounds in two of those contests.

The biggest concern facing Michigan State is that they have few true big bodies up front behind Tillman. That is atypical of Michigan State teams, which traditionally dominate the glass and impose their will in the frontcourt, but with Ward and Goins gone the next best option for Izzo is sophomore Marcus Bingham, who has the size to be a prototypical five but played very sparingly in his freshman year.

One option that Izzo could consider to deal with that problem is embracing a more small-ball approach, which has proven to be successful for teams like Villanova in recent years. Henry, Kyle Ahrens, and Gabe Brown could be solid small ball wings for Michigan State, and the Spartans could definitely look to trend in that direction if Marquette transfer Joey Hauser gains immediate eligibility.

Hauser landed at Michigan State after he and his brother Sam left the Golden Eagles after the season (with Sam landing at Virginia). The Spartans are pursuing an immediate eligibility waiver for Hauser, who averaged 9.7 points per game and knocked down 42.5 percent of his triples, which would make him a valuable weapon for what could become a more perimeter-oriented offense.

On paper, Michigan State definitely has all of the ingredients necessary to cut down the nets in April if they stay healthy. The presence of a Hall of Fame coach in Izzo, veteran leadership in the form of seniors like Langford and Winston, a pre-eminent player in Winston, and plenty of size, skill and shooting.

The monkey on Izzo’s back remains his inability to add a second championship trophy to his resume, and that figures to be the storyline that surrounds Michigan State all year.

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