Mitchell: Spartans, Izzo need more from upperclassmen if they want to be special

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26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists in 44 of 45 playable minutes.

In case you didn’t know, that is the stat line of Michigan State star junior guard Cassius Winston from the Spartans’ disappointing overtime loss to Indiana on Saturday. It’s a stat line that appears pretty normal to fans of Spartan basketball.

His consistency night in and night out has been a huge reason why this team has won so many games especially without fellow backcourt mate Joshua Langford. Nothing depicts this better than looking at his season stats in comparison to his stats over the nine games Langford has been out.

For the season, Winston averages 18.8 points per game and 7.2 assists per game on 48 percent shooting and 45 percent from 3-point range in 32 minutes per game. Now compare this to the nine games without Langford, when he averages 20.7 points per game and 7.1 assists per game on 49 percent shooting and 46 percent from 3-point range in 35.7 minutes.

Not only are his numbers similar, but in some areas they are even better over this period. The Spartans were hoping to ride Winston and his production until Langford got healthy, but with the guard definitively out for the season, things have become more complicated.

If these past three games have shown me anything about the Spartans, it’s that Winston is going to come ready to play for every game, but without Langford he needs his teammates to step up and help him.

A lot of people, including myself, initially wrote pieces and tweeted about how the guy could be Aaron Henry. Henry, just a freshman, has a ton of talent and will be a great Spartan, but that time isn’t now. His athleticism is a huge plus for this team, but his full offensive game is not yet developed enough to take on a much larger role. He needs more time to develop before becoming the guy.

With Henry needing time to develop, the real players who need to step up in Langford’s absence are the upperclassmen. Specifically, Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward.

1999-2000 and the “Flintstones”

Looking at this team, I can’t help but find similarities to the 1999-2000 Spartans team, championed by star guard Mateen Cleaves and the rest of the “Flintstones.” That team was filled with upperclassmen, including four seniors and five juniors. They, similar to the current Spartan team, had to deal with an injury to a star player throughout the season and in the national championship game.

For the first 13 games of that season, Cleaves, the team leader and floor general, sat with a stress fracture in his right foot. It was a major blow to a team that had championship aspirations especially after coming off a Final Four run.

However, with its star guard out though, the team did not sulk and was led by senior forward Morris Peterson and a junior guard who stepped in for Cleaves, Charlie Bell. Peterson and Bell carried the Spartans to a 9-4 record and a No. 11 ranking early in the season. Over that 13 game stretch, Peterson averaged 15.9 points per game and was the scoring leader in seven of the games, while Bell averaged 12.6 points per game.

The senior and junior were crucial to Michigan State staying afloat with Cleaves out. Now I realize that the two situations are different, there is no hope for Langford to come back like Cleaves, but like that team head coach Tom Izzo needs his upperclassmen to be better.

He needs his senior guard Matt McQuaid and junior forward Nick Ward to pick up the slack if the Spartans want a chance at a national title.

Matt McQuaid

McQuaid has been solid all season long and has statistically put together his best season at Michigan State. He’s averaging 8.3 points per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range. The senior co-captain has also taken it up a notch on defense this season, taking the toughest assignments and shutting down opposing team’s best players.

Although he has been good, he must be a more consistent factor offensively with Langford done for the season. Look at his performances in the last three games for the Spartans. At Purdue he was the only other Spartan, besides Winston, in double figures with 12 points, but it came on a pretty poor shooting night just 5-of-12 from the field and 2-of-7 on 3-pointers.

Following that performance, the next two games he has gone a combined 3-of-7 from the field and 3-of-6 on 3-pointers. Now it’s not the percentage that’s frustrating, but instead the number of shots he took. To just have seven field goal attempts in the last two games is something the Spartans just can’t get from one of their best wing players without Langford.  

“We’re putting him (McQuaid) on the best offensive player just about night in and night out and that’s taxing in itself. Some of it is we’re not doing a good job as a coaching staff getting him the ball,” Izzo said in his weekly press conference. “We’ve got to put him in a position to get more shots. I don’t care how many he misses, he’s got to get eight, ten shots. Especially with Josh out of there, Josh was getting 11, 12 shots a game minimum and those shots should be taken.”

Whether it’s a coaching adjustment or McQuaid pushing himself on the offensive end, something has to change.

Nick Ward

The other player the Spartans need to be better is Nick Ward. The junior forward has not been playing even close to his capability in the last three games. While scoring hasn’t been the issue, with him reaching double-digit points in two of the three games, how he’s getting his baskets has been a concern.

Over the three-game span, Ward has just looked out of it as he is not getting the same deep positioning on opposing big guys like he usually would.

“We had our chances inside, and we went inside more. We just missed some shots, and I think Nick (Ward) was uncharacteristic in trying to put the ball on the floor and be a guard for a while in the first half and when we got them down low in the second half…” Izzo said following the loss to Indiana.

Aside from the offensive game, Ward has also been slightly less physical in this stretch, particularly on the glass. Over the three-game period, he has pulled down a total of 10 rebounds, including just one against Illinois.

“Well, we’re not as physical as I’d like us to be. We’re probably a lot more physical than a lot of teams, but I know some of it is Nick. He has to do a better job cutting out and rebounding. He’s too good of a player to do that,” Izzo said.

I’m not sure what has caused the change, but Ward has to be more aggressive both offensively and on the glass for Michigan State to win.

Getting more out of the upperclassmen is going to be paramount to Michigan State’s chances at capturing a national title. Now the sky isn’t falling for this team just yet, but if its older guys don’t step up their play, there will be issues down the line. With three games in the hole and a tough road ahead, this is a critical juncture for this Spartan team.

“Do we just have a program, or do we have a team. Ever since I’ve been in this game, people have told me that a program is bigger than one person, one player, one coach. We’re about to find that out,” Izzo said to Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler in 1999. “I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for us. I don’t want anyone changing their expectations of us.”

That sentiment still rings true for this year’s team. With a home game against Minnesota and a road visit to Wisconsin on the horizon, Tom Izzo is going to find out just what he has.