McRae: Three options for Izzo’s Spartans in 2020-21


Photo: Siobhan Findlay/Impact

Alex McRae, Assistant Sports Director

There isn’t anything I can say that hasn’t been said about the unprecedented abrupt ending to the 2019-20 NCAA basketball season. A bitter end to a season full of such promise and agelation can be characterized as nothing short of a tragedy.

Especially for those who are fans of the Michigan State Spartans, prior to the cancelation of the rest of the college basketball season, coach Tom Izzo had his squad in tip top shape and poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The salt was rubbed into the wounds a bit more as both FiveThirtyEight’s and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s tournament simulations had the Spartans winning their second title under Izzo and the first in twenty years. 

Alas, the games won’t be played and the banner won’t be raised. Now the Spartans must deal with the losses of three seniors, led by future Spartan legend Cassius Winston. 

The production and impact of Winston will be impossible to replace and even harder to replicate, and the impact of fellow seniors Kyle Ahrens and Connor George also cannot be underestimated. Both were quintessential “glue guys” whose veteran leadership helped get the Spartans through some of their deepest ruts. 

The losses don’t stop there for the Spartans however, as highly distinguished, junior big man Xavier Tillman has declared for the 2020 NBA Draft. While he maintained his eligibility by not signing with an agent, draft projections consistently have him slated in the late first round and early second round. For a man that now has two children and a wife, the millions of dollars associated with the NBA must be extremely attractive. 

Michigan State did graduate a fourth senior this past season, Joshua Langford. Langford however, might play in the Green and White once more as a fifth season of eligibility would be granted for a guy who didn’t play at all in the season prior. 

Langford’s 2018-19 campaign was cut short by a foot injury which lingered and ultimately ended his 2019-20 season as well. As a highly productive shooting guard in 2017 and 2018 before his injury, Langford could very well end up forgoing his final season of eligibility and opt for the pro game. 

Michigan State also will likely end up losing two walk-ons as well with Braden Burke entering the transfer portal and Brock Washington being suspended indefinitely mid-season. 

The point is, a team that showed legitimate promise to raise a national championship banner only a month ago now sits without even an opportunity to prove itself and is being forced to stare down the reality of the situation. It’s guaranteed to lose its most impactful player and could potentially lose much more. 

So what does the future of Michigan State basketball look like? Many Spartan fans would say, the veteran presence of forward Aaron Henry, the eligibility of Marquette transfer Joey Hauser, the continued growth from freshmen Rocket Watts and Malik Hall and or the hope that sophomores Marcus Bingham and Gabe Brown will find themselves in a more consistent role. 

While all those answers are certainly warranted, I believe it’s the potential newcomers which could make the difference come next March. 

Michigan State has already filled the scholarship spots for two of the four potential openings with four-star recruits. Forward Mady Sissoko and guard A.J. Hoggard are welcomed additions for certain, but my concern falls with the depth at the guard position. 

There appears to be three options for Michigan State to turn to. The first is the easiest: retain Langford and have him start at shooting guard. Personally, I think this may be the least likely option. Having battled injuries and matured past his years, I think Langford is ready for the next phase in his life, wherever that may be. 

The next door the Spartans may look at is the transfer portal. Izzo has expressed his frustration with the transfer rules in recent years, and rightfully so as many of the NCAA’s decisions seem arbitrary. 

One of the first things Izzo did following the cancelation of the season was reach out to Radford transfer Carlik Jones. Jones would have seemingly solved the issues at guard, but on April 5, Jones chose the Louisville Cardinals over the Spartans. 

The only name out there that has been connected to the Spartans is UNLV’s Amauri Hardy. The Detroit native made a lot of sense for the Spartans considering he’s a grad transfer and would be a stop gap at the point guard position. That said, with the unclear nature of Michigan State’s point guard depth, Hardy chose to go elsewhere for his senior season, committing to Oregon on April 12. 

Last but certainly not least, the Spartans still have the option of picking up another recruit to their 2020 class. 

The only real possibility here would be Karim Mane, the five-star point guard from Canada. Mane is a guy who could step right into a starting role almost immediately, standing at 6-foot-5 while showing elite athletic ability. Mane could be the perfect addition to a Spartan squad in need of another guard. 

Mane, like many other highly rated recruits, has held out on his commitment in an attempt to outlast the pandemic in hopes to visit other campuses. He had visited the likes of Maryland and Marquette with the hopes of visiting East Lansing in mid-March until the outbreak ground all non-essential travel to a halt. 

In my opinion, I believe a commitment from Mane would make the most sense for Izzo and the Spartans, as he provides a great amount of potential and could allow the Spartans to once again reach the elite status they are accustomed to. 

This said, the COVID-19 outbreak has thrown a massive wrench into the Spartans’ plans. The indecision of members of the Michigan State basketball program may wind up hurting the team in the long run. 

Highly touted transfers have decided to take their talents elsewhere, as may the handful of highly rated recruits left uncommitted. In a worse case scenario the Spartans could very well end up having to fill two scholarships very late in the process, without any of the three options listed above, putting the program well behind others in the Big Ten. 

All is not lost however, as I believe the ideal scenario for the Spartans may just be the most likely at this point in time. 

My ideal rotation for the Spartans come next fall would be as follows: 

Point Guard: Karim Mane 

Shooting Guard: Rocket Watts

Small Forward: Aaron Henry

Power Forward: Joey Hauser

Center: Xavier Tillman 

Bench: Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, Marcus Bingham, Foster Loyer, A.J. Hoggard, Mady Sissoko, Thomas Kithier and Julius Marble

Alex McRae is the assistant sports director at Impact 89FM WDBM. Follow him on Twitter at @amac595.