With the state’s college football rivalry game in the rear view, it’s time to look ahead to the next season that can offer grit and emotion and triumph and heartbreak and—most of all—bragging rights.
This Friday (Nov. 11) marks the official tip-off to the 2016-17 college basketball season.
Wolverines may be thinking, already? Spartans, however, are undoubtedly thinking, it’s about time!
CAN MICHIGAN GROW FROM LAST SEASON?
Let’s start with the good news: Michigan returns all of its starters from last season’s 23-13 team. That is, of course, because the only two seniors on that squad—Spike Albrecht and first round draft pick Caris Lavert—missed most of the season with injuries, giving younger players opportunities to step-up and grow into more prominent roles.
How will that transition into the 2016-17 season? Michigan returns 82% of its scoring and 83% of its rebounding. Junior point guard Derrick Walton has a firm handle on running the offense now. Look for junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to become a major scoring threat and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner to grow into a larger role both rebounding and scoring. The X-Factor for this team will be both the leadership and play of senior guard Zak Irvin. He led the team in scoring last season and will need to take on the big shot if this team can make a run in the postseason. Can he become Michigan’s go-to star? Fans have been waiting four years to find out.
So how will the team fare? We’ve seen head coach John Beilein work magic in the past, but we’ve also seen his teams fail to live up to expectations. The amount of experience Michigan will have on its roster will be unique to college basketball, which continues to see young talent dominate and then depart for the NBA. If the team can continue to grow and freshmen can plug into support roles, this could certainly be a contender for the Big Ten title. A national contender, however? Maybe next year.
WILL THE SPARTAN FRESHMEN DELIVER ON THE BIG STAGE?
If Michigan wants to say “we’re back” on the football field, then MSU can say “we never left” on the basketball court. Michigan State, under Tom Izzo, has been one of the nation’s best programs. In 21 years as head coach, Izzo has won 524 games, averaging just under 25 victories per season. That’s of course on top of five Big Ten Tournament championships, seven Big Ten regular season championships, seven Final Four appearances and the 2000 national championship.
But how has MSU done against its biggest rival? Much like football, the Wolverines dominated the early matchups in the rivalry (UM leads 90-80 all-time). Over the last ten meetings, however, State is 6-4 against Michigan, and that record pushes to 12-8 over the last twenty and 26-9 over the last thirty-five, dating back to 1995.
Last season’s MSU team was one of the most talented that Izzo has coached, ending with a 29-6 overall record. After finishing second in the Big Ten regular season, they marched through the Big Ten Tournament for the championship and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That’s where their luck ran out, falling in a major upset to the No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State in the first round.
This year’s team looks to bounce back from that season-ending loss—and in a big way. Despite losing four starters from the 2015-16 squad—including talented freshman Deyonta Davis and National Player of the Year Denzel Valentine—the Spartans nabbed the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class and will plug some of the most talented freshmen in the country into their starting lineup. The biggest question mark this season will be how quickly these true freshmen develop and adjust to the speed of college basketball. They will get thrown right into the fire with MSU’s first two games coming against No. 10 Arizona and No. 2 Kentucky, followed by a matchup with No. 1 Duke later in the non-conference schedule.
So how will this team fare? The expectations are high. In the USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll, MSU is the highest-ranked Big Ten team. We think that’s about right. It may take a few weeks to get their feet under them, but with Izzo at the helm, this young team will be running on all cylinders by Big Ten play and will make a run for another conference title and, possibly, Final Four.