McRae: Spartans still searching for third scoring option

Alex McRae, Assistant Sports Director

EAST LANSING — The stars shone bright for the Michigan State Spartans on this chilly late December matchup against the Eagles of Eastern Michigan. Those stars manifested in the form of Cassius Winston (21 points, seven assists and two rebounds) and Aaron Henry (12 points, nine rebounds and six assists) as they led the Spartans to a 101-48 win.

Coming into the the 2019-20 basketball season, many Spartan faithful expected nights like this one regularly, as entering the season the Spartans were very publically ranked No. 1 overall in the preseason poll.

Yet, November did not treat the Spartans particularly well, leaving the Spartans battered and already with two losses. After facing the buzzsaw that is the Duke Blue Devils in early December, the Spartans picked up yet another loss. 

This Spartans team has struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball thus far this season. Outside of Naismith Player of the Year candidate Cassius Winston and preseason All-Big Ten selection Xavier Tillman, that third scoring option has alluded the Tom Izzo-coached squad. 

That option may not be a singular person on this team; it could end up being a pair of two sophomores, Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown. Michigan State’s offense could hinge on which of the two has the hot hand on any particular day. 

Brown’s first bucket of the contest against Eastern Michigan was resounding, as he threw down a two handed alley-oop dunk off a beautiful feed from Winston. 

Brown was getting only his fifth start of the season. With the news of Joshua Langford’s season-ending surgery and his plans to prepare for the professional game partnered with the injury of highly recruited freshman Rocket Watts, Brown now has an opportunity to cement himself firmly within the Spartans’ starting lineup at the shooting guard position. 

He followed up his first career double-double (11 points and 10 rebounds) against Northwestern with a balanced seven points, six rebounds and two assists in the in-state matchup against the Eagles. 

With this said, Brown is clearly still not the bona fide scorer he’s shown flashes of. This was exemplified by Izzo’s relatively quick trigger when it came to pulling Brown. While he did start, redshirt senior Kyle Ahrens saw a lot of the floor as well. 

Aaron Henry, who entering Saturday’s game was shooting 44.7% from the field, 35.5% from beyond the arc and 77.8% from the charity stripe, has left many wanting more. Those who have watched Michigan State play will say that his statline is deceiving.

While not the case this evening, at times, Henry has had an uncanny impression of the Invisible Man. This, when defenses are able to lock in on Tillman and or Winston, is how Michigan State gets into trouble and mistakes begin to multiply. 

In order to combat this, Michigan State cannot rely on just one man as a true third offensive option. While it would be much easier for Henry to be the clear third guy on the team, it’s obvious now that he just isn’t there yet. 

Therefore, Izzo must be able to identify who is hot on a particular day and ride that guy to ease the offensive pressure that Winston and Tillman feel on a game-to-game basis. 

Offensive efficiency partnered with solid defense is the key to winning basketball games. That was exemplified by the University of Virginia last April, and in order for the Spartans to live up to their lofty expectations, they need to take a page out the Cavaliers’ playbook. 

Controlled aggressiveness, limiting low percentage shots and suffocating defense are staples of a Tom Izzo team. As of late, his squad is starting to show signs of growth and adaptation to these principles. 

Although these performances have come at the expense of lesser opponents, when compared to the prior matchups against similar competition, they are encouraging signs to the future outlook of this squad.

Contact Alex McRae at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @amac595.