Road struggles, big home wins, injuries to key players, a lone senior leading her team for one last ride and a team that is likely going to get its first NCAA tournament berth since 2014. It’s been one wild ride for the Spartans this season.
The team saw the extreme highs of being a one-loss team, taking down No. 3 Oregon in a David versus Goliath matchup. Jenna Allen and the Spartans went toe-to-toe with No. 1 WNBA prospect Sabrina Ionescu and the Ducks. The team then saw extreme lows, beginning with a head-scratching loss to Northwestern on the road.
Michigan State finished the regular season 19-10 overall with 9-9 mark in Big Ten play. This came after starting off 12-1, opening conference play with a huge 84-70 win over the eventual Big Ten tournament champion Iowa Hawkeyes.
All that be said, there are some takeaways we can draw from the season as the Spartans await Selection Monday for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament next week.
The Spartans are in safe hands, and not just for next year
Despite losing senior and leading scorer Jenna Allen, the team is in very safe hands. If anything, this team should be one of the favorites to win the conference next season. A plethora of underclassmen that have contributed in big ways this year, along with the No. 7 recruiting class that features five ESPNW top-100 recruits, will be the main reasons why this team is able to contend.
The underclassmen are led by starting guard and true freshman Nia Clouden. Clouden is averaging 12 points per game, an average that ranks among the top true freshman in the Big Ten. The Maryland native dropped a career-high 27 points against Iowa in that 14-point win, showcasing her poise and maturity that isn’t commonly seen in someone so young.
In the frontcourt, sophomore center/power forward Sidney Cooks has showcased the ability to not only defend the paint at a high level, but also provide scoring whenever called upon. The sophomore had 21 points off the bench, missing only four shots, and has a team-high 28 blocks this year.
Her ability to spread the floor while also playing inside could take the Spartan offense to the next level in the coming two seasons. This is of course barring any major injuries: something that Suzy Merchant said held her back earlier this year.
Another underclassmen that many may have forgotten about from earlier this year is combo guard/forward Tory Ozment. Ozment was providing double-digit scoring off the bench and provides frontcourt and backcourt depth that the Spartans definitely missed down the stretch.
She has been out with a lower leg injury ever since the Iowa game and hasn’t been able to get on the court for more than six minutes, not even playing in several games down the stretch. If she can recover and return to this lineup, she could possibly start for a team that will need to shuffle its lineup around next winter.
We still don’t know what happened on the road
Going on the road is the hardest thing to do in college basketball. To ask a team to consistently win on the road, especially when that team is so young, is a tough thing to do.
The Spartans went 3-8 on the road during the regular season.
For a team that will graduate only one player, the prospects are bright. Merchant and company can only hope that the road struggles don’t carry over from this year. The amount of strange losses that annihilated their chances of the regular-season title in the Big Ten can’t happen again. Especially given the fact that this team took care of business against every team that finished tied or above them in the league standings at the Breslin Center.
The team defeated regular season champion Maryland in East Lansing, but then was defeated by Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State on the road.
The team said it tried everything to shake it up on the road, but it was truly strange to see a major difference away from the Breslin. With the exception of the Oakland game, when the Spartans won 102-58, MSU averaged 66.1 points per game in 10 games on the road, going 2-8. The only wins came over Hartford, which went into overtime, and Michigan, which is a rivalry game that changes everything.
The average I mentioned above is nearly 10 points less than the Spartans’ total season average of 75.1 points a game. That was a major cause for concern because the team also gave up 74.7 points as a team. When you are averaging nearly ten points per game less than your opponents, you will not win on the road.
The biggest takeaway has to be that this team couldn’t get it figured out on the road You can point to many things when thinking about the blame. Was it Merchant not preparing her team? A lack of preparation by the players themselves? A mental hurdle? We won’t know. Even after a players-only meeting following the loss at Ohio State, the team continued to struggle and not get it done.
Fans can only hope that doesn’t carry over into next season.
Health was still an issue this season
This team stayed relatively healthy on the surface level, but many players would often miss games out of seemingly nowhere.
This felt like a lack of communication between training staff and coaches, especially during the Michigan game in Ann Arbor, when there was some confusion about whether or not forward Mardrekia Cooks would play in the game. It was a strange situation but only happened once to my knowledge.
The team had only three players suit up for every single game, which was cause for concern with training staff and the way they handled some players’ health. While it was nothing crazy, some questions must be asked of the team and its training staff. Injuries have riddled the program in recent years and are a direct cause of the team missing the NCAA tournament.
Spartans dancing again
Of course, a likely berth into the NCAA tournament is coming for MSU. The team got to the magic number of 20 wins with a victory in the conference tournament over Northwestern. This, along with the impressive wins against their AP Top 25-ranked opponents, will provide one of the best resumes for a team that struggled down the stretch.
The team was projected to play in South Bend, Indiana by ESPNW, but that changed to Mississippi over the weekend. This is a big takeaway from the team’s season, seeing as they haven’t gotten to play in late March since 2014.
Getting some tournament experience for this young roster will be big for MSU, and the team will be able to build off a hopeful appearance and use that for next season. Once some of those underclassmen get a taste of the hype around the NCAA tournament, they will want to get back there and prove to fans they can compete with the top programs not only in the Big Ten, but the entire NCAA.
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