Thomas Kithier. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Thomas Kithier* was starting for the #1 ranked team in the country, about to tip off in the Champions Classic. I’m no basketball expert, but that seemed like a major red flag for this MSU squad and the season hadn’t even started yet.
*My favorite part was the Rip Hamilton mask and headband he was wearing, due to a broken nose. It reminded me of when Lebron wore the “black mask” when he was with the Heat, except he looked cool when he did it. Kithier, well, did not.
Then the game started… And MSU didn’t disappoint; They committed 22 fouls, had 16 turnovers, Freshman Tyrese Maxey outplayed Cassius Winston, and they let a bunch of freshman, playing together for the first time, beat them.
But you can’t get mad at this MSU roster or Coach Tom Izzo, no. Because this is the first time they (even in the Magic Johnson days) that they have ever been in this situation — The pre-season #1 ranked team and the consensus pick to win the national title this year.*
*I’m workshopping a take that Izzo held back the information about Langford’s injury until after MSU was announced as the pre-season #1 ranked team, then released it to lower pressure/expectations for this team… But I can’t prove it.
Now I’m not saying it wasn’t deserved (okay, maybe a little), because people far smarter than I voted them into that position; But after watching Kentucky handle them from the opening tip, Duke upset Kansas, Cole Anthony drop 34 points for the Tar-Heels in a win over Notre Dame, and Virginia hold Syracuse to 34 points… I know this team isn’t a championship team. They’re a “let’s have some fun, win the Big Ten, and make some noise in the tournament before going out in the Elite 8 type team”.
That’s still a good season and nothing to shake your head at — This is a Big Ten championship-caliber team, sure. But national title contender? Hell no.
The problems with this team start with their lack of depth on the bench. Anytime Foster Loyer,* Thomas Kithier, Kyle Ahrens, and Jack Hoiberg** step on the floor in the Champions Classic, you know you have bit of a depth problem. “But Loyer is a smart player, Kithier is a good rebounder, Ahrens can strap it, and Hoiberg almost never plays!” I’ve heard all of the reasoning on why Izzo plays these guys, but the fact is, it’s because THEY HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO ONE ELSE.
*Foster Loyer reminds me of when a little kid gets dragged to the park by his older brother and gets to play in the game. He plays scared and he just doesn’t want to do anything stupid while he’s out there, so that his brother doesn’t beat him up when they get home.
**Don’t ask me why, but Izzo subbed in Hoiberg for the last six seconds of the first half to play defense, what a slap in the face that is to Hoiberg. I would rather just ride the bench all game then get a pitty substitution.
Whenever Izzo subs in (or starts!) one of these guys, it reminds me of the guy at the bar who after striking out with all of the good looking girls, settles for the whale in the back that’s been giving him “f*** me eyes” all night. “I’ve exhausted all other options and after a beer or two, Kithier actually looks like he has dribbled a ball before.”
The lack of depth started when Langford re-injured his foot this offseason. Before the injury last season Langford was averaging 15 points and 2.3 assists while shooting 40.3% from three. Without Langford, this team struggles to space the floor and all of the offensive scoring relies on Winston.
The scariest part about this injury is the lack of a timetable, they aren’t even going to re-evaluate Langford until January… Which means he most likely won’t be back until February or March. This leaves little time for his teammates to grow adjusted to him in the lineup and for him to get his legs back under him. That is if he even comes back the same player… And if I was Izzo I would plan on being without Langford in March for the second consecutive year.
Without Langford, the biggest problem for this MSU team is going to be stretching the floor and hitting the three, which we saw against Kentucky when they shot an abysmal 5/26 (19%) from behind the arc.
The basketball world has shifted and the reliance on the three-ball has never been more prevalent. And it’s extremely important to this MSU team that lacks post scoring and relies heavily on pick and rolls. Without shooters to space the floor (and no, Ahrens is not enough & Rocket Watts can’t shoot either), Cassius is going to face more double teams and traps on the pick and roll than he has his entire career. Cassius is good … player of the year good — But his game becomes extremely marginalized when he doesn’t have shooters around him.
Say what you will about recent graduates, Matt McQuaid* and Kenny Goins, but the Spartans are going to miss there 3-point shooting this season. Actually and I feel crazy saying this, but I think they are going to miss these more than we expected. Both helped on the defensive end and for a team without NBA level talent, you need as much senior leadership as you can.
*I liked the cut of McQuaid’s job… And I miss him. There I said it.
The good news is if anyone can figure this situation out, it’s Izzo. Last year we saw him take an MSU team missing it’s starting and back-up shooting guard (Langford & Ahrens) to the Final Four… But due to the loss of Langford, their lack of depth, a lack of NBA talent, and poor three-point shooting — This is going to require Izzo best coaching job up until this point, but if he does it… This will be his Sistine Chapel.
Oh — And as for the MSU players “deleting twitter off their phone” … That’s bullshit, they all have burners and probably the only thing they aren’t reading on twitter is this blog.