On Wednesday, ESPN.com will roll out its preseason Power Rankings. Next week, the first AP poll of the season will be unveiled. A case can be made for a host of teams to be No. 1. Here is the case for Michigan State to have the top spot.
Michigan State snuck into the NCAA tournament last season as a No. 9 seed, and, historically, a spot on the No. 9 or 10 line has represented the absolute floor for how "low" (ha) this program can get under Tom Izzo. Improvement would be the safe prediction for 2017-18 even if we didn't know anything else.
But what we do know about this particular group of Spartans is so striking that there's a case to be made for them as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Miles Bridges is back for his sophomore season, and he'll be joined in the starting lineup by fellow returnees Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward. That still leaves one spot open on the floor for Jaren Jackson, the No. 9-rated freshman in the ESPN 100.
As a result, proven performers such as Matt McQuaid, Gavin Schilling, Tum Tum Nairn, Kenny Goins and Ben Carter will either be coming off the bench or displacing one of the five players named above. This is an exceptionally deep team, but any discussion of MSU this season still starts with Bridges.
The sophomore is perhaps the only player you'll see in college basketball this season who affirmatively turned down a chance to play in the NBA in 2017-18. ("Perhaps." Yes, I see you, Robert Williams.) That is one cool claim to make, but what, exactly, will it mean to the Spartans in terms of performance?
Excellent question. The history on this matter is rather thin because most sophomores-to-be given a shot at the NBA go ahead and take that shot. When it comes to what I call "Why are you still here?" sophomores, you're looking at a group that includes just a few players. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger in 2011-12, North Carolina's Harrison Barnes that same season and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart in 2013-14 all come to mind, certainly.
In fact, Bridges' freshman numbers were remarkably similar to what Barnes posted as a freshman at North Carolina in 2010-11 in terms of offensive rating and workload. Still, if I thought Izzo's sophomore was likely to merely mimic what Barnes did during a very good but by no means legendary sophomore season, I wouldn't be making the case that the Spartans are No. 1.
No, I'm expecting the 6-foot-7 Bridges to instead record something closer to the great statistical leap forward that Smart took as a sophomore. (Yes, there was a leap, albeit one that was somewhat overlooked. The Oklahoma State star may have been a smidge overrated as a freshman, and, anyway, as a sophomore he served a three-game suspension after shoving a fan in the first row at Texas Tech.)
True, being named the unanimous preseason Big Ten player of the year in the league's "unofficial official" media poll is probably raising the bar a smidge too high for Bridges this season. (Even Smart didn't leap tall buildings in a single bound as a sophomore.) Nevertheless, this groupthink bespeaks a sound instinct coming to grips with an extreme situation. We don't usually see a sophomore as talented as Bridges in the college game.
So Izzo has an NBA-track featured scorer around which to build, plus something perhaps even more valuable. Michigan State enters 2017-18 with the serene knowledge that it already has a pretty good grip on two of the most challenging aspects of the game, namely shooting and defense.
Even last season, as a lowly No. 9 seed, the Spartans excelled at shooting and at defense. In Big Ten play, MSU shot more than five percentage points better than their opponents inside the arc. Meanwhile on defense, Izzo's guys were pretty good at defending the rim and (this will not surprise you) outstanding at limiting opponents to one shot.
Michigan State's problem in 2016-17 was simply that opponents attempted many, many more shots than did the Spartans. You've heard about MSU's horrible turnover rate, and it was indeed horrible. But the shot disparity stemmed not only from too many Spartans giveaways but also from way too few opponent turnovers and, not least, from a surprisingly low offensive rebound rate for an Izzo team.
This lack of second chances shouldn't be a continuing issue if Ward gets more minutes. The 6-foot-8 sophomore is an outstanding offensive rebounder, but the expectation that he'd get into foul trouble as a freshman (and he often did) seemed to calcify into a substitution routine that was followed to the letter even when he did not. Time to see what Ward can do with 25 or even the occasional 30 minutes.
With a preseason Big Ten player of the year in Bridges, a potential DeMarcus Cousins-at-Kentucky-level statistical bomb poised to explode in Ward and the conference's highest-ranked freshman (by far) in the 6-foot-11 Jackson, Michigan State would be imposing on paper in any case. Add in the fact that team was just a few turnover-less possessions, a takeaway here and there and a handful of offensive rebounds away from being a much higher seed last March, and you're looking at something more impressive still. This could well be the No. 1 team in Division I.