While Friday was the first official game of the year, tonight is the first BIG game of the year. I reached out to Joe Tuohey over at The Only Colors, the SB Nation site covering the Michigan State Spartans. He was kind enough to answer some questions about our opponent for the evening.
RCT: Last season, the Spartans didn't really have many expectations. Things started out rough early, but ultimately they were able to finish third in the conference and earn a berth in the Final Four. What was it like to ride along in such a rollercoaster season?
TOC: It was unbelievable. Also not mentioned here is that MSU lost a non-con game in December to Texas Southern. At The Only Colors we were so concerned about missing the tournament for the first time since 1997 that we actually created a DEFCON-style BUBBLECON system to let everyone know how close the team was to missing the tournament. To come on so strong at the end of the year and be able to hang a Final Four banner was surreal. I'm still not totally sure I believe it.
RCT: While Denzel Valentine is returning, the loss of Branden Dawson and Travis Trice looks to be huge. Which returning players are likely to have a big impact in filling that void?
TOC: The loss of Branden Dawson is mostly important due to his unique rebounding and defensive abilities, since his offensive game always left a little bit to be desired. In any case, the rebounding will likely come by committee to some degree; Matt Costello, senior big man, will be partially responsible for taking a larger role in these areas. Sophomore Javon Bess and freshman Deyonta Davis will get Dawson's minutes, and both are relative unknowns after Bess missed most of last season. There's certainly lots of promise for those two.
Travis Trice will be missed for his ability to distribute and create his own shot. In the first category, Valentine and sophomore Tum Tum Nairn will be tasked with running the offense and distributing the ball. In the latter category, Valentine will be the focal point of the offense, but transfer Eron Harris from West Virginia is hopefully going to be able to create on his own as well.
RCT: MSU has quite a few new faces this year. What do they bring to the team, and which one has you most excited?
TOC: The aforementioned Davis is the biggest recruit and is a long-armed big with impeccable timing; he notched a 13-11-5 (pts-reb-blk) in his collegiate debut. Davis should grow into a defensive force with time, though his offensive game is murky at this point.
Transfer guard Eron Harris had a lot of hype coming in as a guy who could create his own offense off the dribble and hit threes with consistency. Harris went 0-4 from three in the first game of the year and looked a little shaky preseason as well. I think he'll get more comfortable in the offense over time.
Freshman guard Matt McQuaid has, thus far, been a pleasant surprise. His reputation was as a pure shooter, but he's running the point at times and seems to have a great feel for the game. Weirdly enough, he's the guy I'm most excited about in terms of the new guys right now. Maybe that's just because I had no expectations for him coming in.
Freshman wing Kyle Ahrens is a terrific athlete and has a big frame, but it's a little unclear right now what his role on this team might be. He's a likely redshirt.
RCT: When the Champions Classic was first announced, Michigan State seemed to be the one inclusion that didn't make sense immediately. But Tom Izzo has lived up to the hype, returning repeatedly to the Final Four, and his teams have played quite well in this yearly event. What has it been like for Michigan State fans having this marquee matchup to start the year?
TOC: My readers will probably be upset with me if I didn't get in a little #disrespekt after that question. I mean, Kansas only has one more national title than MSU and KU has been in just four Final Fours this century compared to MSU's six. Why would it not make sense to include MSU in the Champions Classic? MSU isn't quite a college basketball blue blood the way Kansas is, but it isn't too far off.
Anyways, the Champions Classic hasn't been much of a change for MSU basketball. Under Tom Izzo, MSU has prided itself on playing anyone, anywhere, anytime; MSU has played teams like North Carolina, Texas, Kansas, UCLA, Duke and Gonzaga with regularity in the non-conference schedule.
RCT: What is your prediction for the game? Does the experience that the Jayhawks got playing in the World University Games give them and advantage in this game?
TOC: To be honest, I have no idea how the World University Games might impact Kansas. Is there any precedent for this sort of thing? I'm hoping that the trip to Italy that MSU took will pay some dividends as well, but to me it seems impossible to tell.
I think MSU still has a fair bit to figure out in terms of the rotation and also in terms of offensive roles with the turnover this team experienced from a season ago. Kansas doesn't quite have the same issue since the Jayhawks are more experienced, and I think that makes a big difference this early. KU 75 - MSU 70.
RCT: Bonus - The Simpsons or Family Guy?
TOC: The Simpsons all the way.
A special thanks to Joe for helping us out today. And don't forget to check out the questions I answered for him as well.