Key Departures: Aaron Henry (NBA); Joshua Langford (Grad); Rocket Watts (–>Miss St); Thomas Kithier (–>Valpo) Foster Loyer (–>Davidson)
New In Town: Tyson Walker (<–Northeastern); Max Christie (#19); Jaden Akins (#52); Pierre Brooks (#59)
State of the Program:
Tom Izzo entered last season having never gone sub-.500 in Big Ten Conference play in his 25 years at the helm, but in year 26 he saw his streak come to an end. And even so, the Spartans rallied late to squeak into the tournament, only to fall in the First Four to eventual Final Four team UCLA. Izzo struggled to find consistency from almost everyone on the roster, as he started 11 different guys throughout the season and had 12 guys enter and exit the rotation at various points. Izzo looked desperate the entire season for someone other than Aaron Henry to emerge as a reliable option, and frankly was never presented with one. 5 of those 12 have now exited the program and those who remain will have to battle a very talented incoming class that will look to steal the open roles. Highlighting the returning group are forwards Gabe Brown (SR), Marcus Bingham (SR), Joey Hauser (JR), Malik Hall (JR), and Julius Marble (JR). These 5 will battle for time at the 4-5 spots, with Gabe Brown likely playing a lot of time at the 3 as well. Obviously, the exodus out of East Lansing was in the backcourt, and Izzo will rely on a very young group of newcomers to lead the offense, hoping somewhere he can find a playmaker….or two.
The guy with the best chance to come in and fill the playmaking void is Northeastern transfer PG Tyson Walker (JR). The 6’0” Walker averaged nearly 19 ppg last year and became one of the most coveted players in the transfer market. He is a tough shot maker and is crafty in getting into the paint to both finish and facilitate, and his athleticism should allow those skills to translate to high major play so he should come in and be the starting PG for Izzo. 5-star 6’6” SG Max Christie (#19) also comes to campus looking to assume a starting backcourt gig. Christie’s size and skills remind you of someone like Jarrett Culver, a long lanky scorer who can get to the rim and hit tough perimeter shots. Izzo is not known for giving the reigns to a Freshman, but in Christie he has a guy who has skills the rest of the wing players simply don’t have, so I expect the offense to feature Christie heavily. 6’3” PG Jaden Akins (#52) also enters the program looking to compete for a spot in the backcourt rotation, and his athleticism and feel for the game should allow him to compete with AJ Hoggard (SO) at the backup PG spot. Akins has freakish athleticism and controls the game well at the PG spot, and if he improves his jump shot he could become a star for Sparty down the road. Last man in the group is 6’6” SF Pierre Brooks (#59). Brooks is an exciting prospect due to his combination of strength and physicality mixed with scoring ability at all 3 levels. He can create for himself, either for a jump shot or by using his physicality to punish defenders inside. He reminds you of a guy like Raiquon Gray or even current Buckeye EJ Liddell. This incoming group could all end up having very significant roles, with Walker and Christie needing to become scorers Sparty can lean on.
Prediction: 7th Big Ten (NR)
Ultimately, seeing this Sparty team appear in a lot of pre-season top-25 rankings is pretty befuddling. You’re looking at a team that lost its only proven offensive playmakers in Henry, Langford, and Watts and will be relying heavily on a group that Izzo swapped in and out of the rotation last year in a display of pure desperation for consistent quality play. That leaves you relying on a transfer out of the Colonial Athletic Conference and a Freshman to be the primary scorers for a group that was already 98th in offensive efficiency a year ago. Listen I love Tom Izzo, best coach in the country hands down in my opinion, but even for him this is a tall, tall order. Izzo has succeeded all of these years largely relying on two things, an established big man and veteran G play. Neither of those things can be found on this roster. Marble has the best shot at becoming an interior threat, but he was wildly inconsistent a year ago. Walker is experienced in mid-major basketball but the Big Ten is a different animal. How well he can translate his game against bigger faster players will be massive. If the Freshmen can come in and be the rising tide to lift all boats then we may just see Sparty back on track, but as much potential as there is in this group they aren’t as decorated as they need to be to lift an entire program in year 1. Christie will be good, but only good enough to leave them somewhere around .500 again in Conference play and firmly on the bubble come March.