Cole: Spartans show promise at Moneyball

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DIMONDALE, Mich. — Before I get to far into this, I’ll say it straight up: There’s really nothing you can draw about Michigan State’s basketball talent from the Moneyball Pro-Am tournament.

However, after attending for the first time Tuesday night, it’s obvious why the gym is packed each night with hopeful fans throughout the summer.

Aim High Sports in suburban Lansing turns into the headquarters for mid-Michigan’s summer hoops fans and players. The pro-am tournament is just that: six teams stocked with vast levels of talent. Many know about the high-level Division I players from Michigan State like Cassius Winston and Nick Ward. Other players come from lower-level area schools like Albion and Olivet. There are even some veterans looking to relive their glory days, like Melvin White, a 2004 graduate of Grand Valley State.

But the Spartans always are the ones to steal the show, and Tuesday night was no exception. They know they’re the stars of the show, evidenced by the green-and-white-heavy crowd. Spartan players can’t leave the floor without having dozens of kids lining up asking for autographs and pictures.

What you can draw from the event is that the Spartans are a team with players that care. None of them big-timed those kids or rushed out; they each stayed and took the time to make each youngster’s night. That’s the human side that Moneyball brings out, as opposed to the isolated Hollywood-esque stage the Spartans play on during the winter at the Breslin Center.

As far as the sheer basketball talent goes, Moneyball isn’t exactly the place to base expectations for the upcoming basketball season. The Spartans will play against far superior athletes all season long. There’s hardly any defense played. No offensive sets, no execution of a game plan.

The Spartans are a team with players that care. None of them big-timed those kids or rushed out; they each stayed and took the time to make each youngster’s night.

But what you can see is the signs of hope for the Spartan freshmen, in their first action on the same court as some of their new teammates.

Gabe Brown, paired with the Spartans’ star point guard Cassius Winston, shared his impressive game with hopeful fans. He snatched down rebounds and showed off his driving ability in addition to an improving jump shot. A lefty wing from Belleville, Brown has received praise throughout the tournament as a freshman that can make an impact as the Spartans look to replace Miles Bridges’ production.

“I’m becoming stronger, I’m becoming a team player,” the 6-foot-7, 205-pounder said. “I’m focusing well on the rotations and playing with everybody on my defense and becoming tougher. So everything’s coming along really well.”

Brown often was matched up against another incoming freshman in Aaron Henry. Henry was quiet early in the matchup between his Team Definition and Brown’s Team Quicksilver. But he picked up the pace and closed out the second overtime of an exciting game with a game-winning three-pointer.

“We’ve been competing since we’ve been here,” Henry (6-foot-6, 218 pounds) said of his relationship with Brown. “That’s one of (MSU coach Tom) Izzo’s big things that we carry it on and off the court. When we get on the court here, it’s bragging rights… now I get to have that laugh until the next Moneyball next year.”

One of the Spartans’ leaders this year continues to trim down his body and expand his game. Nick Ward has brought his weight all the way down to 237 pounds, allowing him to be flexible in developing better ball-handling and an outside shot for Team Vintage.

“I’m feeling great, jumping better, moving quicker,” said the junior from Gahanna, Ohio. “I’m guarding people like Josh [Langford] and Cassius [Winston].”

The incoming freshmen also pointed to the conditioning and changes in their body when asked about their developments this summer. Big man Thomas Kithier even boasted that he’s already lost 10 pounds by adding muscle and losing fat.

With a host of experience returning, led by Winston, Ward and Langford, as well as the promising freshman class that also includes point guard Foster Loyer and big man Marcus Bingham, Michigan State seems poised to make a run at a second straight Big Ten regular season title. Those hopes have Ward excited to leave Moneyball and prepare for the upcoming grind.

The championship round of the Moneyball Pro-Am tournament is Thursday evening, with action beginning at 6 p.m. Admission is free at Aim High Sports.

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