Getting to know: Michigan State basketball
Kansas enters the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 team in the country in just about every important preseason poll.
Tuesday night is the first official chance for the Jayhawks to back up those lofty expectations, as they square off with No. 10 Michigan State in the eighth annual State Farm Champions Classic at 6 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
“They’re better than a top-10 program,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “You’ve got (Nick) Ward, (Cassius) Winston and (Joshua) Langford who are probably going to play as many minutes as any three starters in the country over the past three years.”
Kansas is 3-4 in the Champions Classic with two wins against Duke and one over Kentucky. The Jayhawks have won their last two Champions Classic contests. KU is 0-2 against Michigan State in the Champions Classic after losing by 67-64 in 2012 and dropping a 79-73 decision in 2015.
“It’s the beginning of the season,” junior center Udoka Azubuike said. “The fans are excited, everyone wants to see what Kansas can do. That tournament really helps us as a team. When you guard them, you play your heart out, it really helps us, for the season, going forward.”
Fun fact: No. 10 Michigan State will be the highest ranked team Kansas will play to open the season since No. 2 KU defeated No. 8 Utah, 79-68, on Nov. 25, 1995, at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.
Series history: Michigan State leads 7-6. Kansas has won two of the last three meetings, including a 90-70 win in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament in 2017.
BREAKING DOWN MICHIGAN STATE
No. 5 — PG Cassius Winston | 6-1, 185, jr.
An argument could certainly be made for Nick Ward, but Winston is listed as the team’s top player ahead of this game after being the only Spartan to make the Citizen Naismith Trophy men's watch list.
Winston has demonstrated elite vision as a passer since he joined the Spartans. Last year’s clip of 6.9 assists per game ranked eighth in the country. According to KenPom.com, Winston has boasted the second-best assist rate in all of college basketball during each of his two seasons at Michigan State.
In addition, Winston showed strides on defense as well as his 3-point shot last year. In his sophomore season, Winston improved his efficiency from long range by almost 12 percentage points. Winston will look to take another huge step as a junior after averaging 12.6 points per contest last year.
No. 44 — C Nick Ward | 6-9, 245, junior
Ward is back to take another step for the Spartans, who lack a superstar after losing Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. to the NBA.
This past offseason, Ward also tested the NBA waters to learn he had to develop his game some more. As a sophomore, Ward averaged 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Ward paced the Big Ten in field goal percentage, shooting 64.8 percent from the floor. He also posted the top offensive rebounding percentage (18.2) in the nation, according to KenPom.com.
However, Ward has yet to show the ability to score outside of the low-post area at a consistent rate. He also has well-documented struggles with his ball-screen defense, which is something the Jayhawks can exploit in the season opener.
No. 1 — SG Joshua Langford | 6-5, 210, jr.
Langford played 32 minutes, recording 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting during Michigan State’s second-round loss to Kansas in 2017.
“I think more of what we take from that game is we kind of owe Kansas one,” Langford told Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News. “I think everyone is on the same page and we are a good enough team, a great enough team to win this game.”
Last season, Langford averaged 11.7 points per game and made over 40 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. He has shown the ability to take over games, scoring 23 points against North Carolina last season. Langford also is a consistent defender on the perimeter.
No. 25 — PF Kenny Goins | 6-7, 230, sr
Goins has endured a lot on his path from walk-on to starter for the Spartans.
In his collegiate career, Goins has had to deal with three knee injuries, two broken noses and a sports hernia surgery. Last year, Goins played 13.9 minutes per game, averaging 2.1 points and 2.8 rebounds per contest.
No. 20 — SF Matt McQuaid | 6-5, 200, sr
McQuaid, who started a pair of games last year, is a co-captain for Michigan State along with Langford.
Last season, McQuaid was one of the team’s most efficient shooters from deep, hitting over 39 percent of his triples. He averaged 20 minutes per contest, posting a clip of 6.0 points per outing for the Spartans.
ONE THING MICHIGAN STATE DOES WELL
It is too early to tell what the Spartans’ strength will be, given they played just one public exhibition game. According to KenPom, Michigan State has the ninth-best adjusted offensive efficiency (112.7) in the nation heading into the regular season. The Spartans haven’t been listed in the top-10 in that category since 2016 when they ranked No. 2 in that area.
ONE AREA MICHIGAN STATE STRUGGLES
After losing Bridges and Jackson, Michigan State enters the newest season without a clear star. Winston, Ward and Langford will be asked to embrace even bigger roles this year, which may take some time to get used to.
MEET THE COACH
Michigan State is coached by Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Tom Izzo who is 574-225 entering his 24th season at MSU. Under Izzo, Michigan State has advanced to seven Final Fours, winning the 2000 NCAA title.
According to Bovada, Kansas is a 5-point favorite over Michigan State in the season opener. Both teams lost key players from last year, and enter this matchup with plenty of things to figure out about each roster. In the end, though, I side with the Jayhawks’ talent. I also think Bill Self will defer to using Dedric Lawson more on the perimeter, similar to Svi’s role last year. He can figure out his two-big lineup against the teams like Vermont and Wofford.
My prediction: Kansas 82, Michigan State 73.