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Interview with a Spartan: Michigan State Q&A

Our friend Ryan O’Bleness of The Only Colors dropped by to give us the inside scoop on the top team in the B1G this year.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Wisconsin David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

A month ago if I had told you that this match up would be for first place in the B1G, you probably would have called me a liar and never read this website again! Thankfully it never came to that and also thankfully, this game IS for first place in the B1G!

The second place Wisconsin Badgers (11-6 overall, 4-2 B1G) travel to East Lansing to play the conference leading Michigan State Spartans (13-4 overall, 5-1 B1G) on Friday evening with early season conference bragging rights on the line.

Wisconsin has won two games in a row (at Penn State and vs. Maryland) overall and three straight games on the road (at Tennessee, at Ohio State and at Penn State) so they come into this game brimming with confidence. MSU, on the other hand, has had a whole week to stew over getting their doors blown off by Purdue last weekend, so they’ll be brimming with, uh, anger and shame?

Either way, this should hopefully be another classic Badgers/Spartans clash for B1G supremacy. Here is some inside info on MSU from Ryan O’Bleness of our SB Nation cousins, The Only Colors.

1) Can you give us a brief overview of the Spartans season so far? What has been their best win?

The Spartans got off to a slow start after being named the preseason No. 1 team. The team opened with a loss to a tough Kentucky squad, and started just 5-3 overall, including an upset loss to Virginia Tech in the first round of the Maui Invitational, and getting wrecked by Duke on the Spartans’ own home court.

Some of the early season struggles could be attributed to off-the-court issues. Shooting guard Joshua Langford re-injured his foot right before the start of the year and was ruled out indefinitely, and eventually for the season. Transfer forward Joey Hauser’s waiver for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA multiple times, despite inconsistencies with the rule throughout the country (Editor’s note: WE KNOW!). And then of course there was the tragedy that shook the entire team and program when Cassius Winston’s younger brother, Zachary, committed suicide. That obviously, had a huge effect on the team’s morale and performance.

After the Duke game, though, something changed with this team. Michigan State went on a tear and won eight games in a row in impressive fashion, and took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings. That came to crashing end last Sunday against Purdue in West Lafayette. MSU was embarrassed, as the Boilermakers absolutely boat-raced the Spartans and won by 29 points. But MSU still sits atop the conference standings.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

I would say the team’s best came against Michigan at home. Michigan State destroyed their biggest rivals by a score of 87-69, and wins against U of M always feel just a little bit sweeter. MSU also had an impressive road win in the non-conference against a a very good Seton Hall team that was ranked No. 12 in the country at the time. Seton Hall is now ranked No. 18 and just took down No. 5 Butler.

Overall it has all of the makings of a strong season.

2) With Kyle Ahrens out for the foreseeable future, how does that change the bench rotation for MSU (if at all, I know he wasn’t playing a MAJOR role)?

Unfortunately for Ahrens, he’s had to battle through injuries his entire career. He just can’t seem to remain healthy, and he has not been as effective this season as he was last year. Oftentimes he’s looked lost on defense and he’s been pretty limited as a scorer for the majority of the season. With all that said, Spartans fans love his hustle, energy and willingness to always sacrifice his body.

NCAA Basketball: Binghamton at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of the rotation, I don’t see a whole lot changing. Ahrens hasn’t played more than 11 minutes since Dec. 29 and was averaging a little over 12 on the season as a whole. MSU has had 11 players play in at least 15 games this season, so Tom Izzo hasn’t really stuck to a strict eight-man rotation or anything like that. Ahrens’ latest ailment could open up more playing time for former walk-on Conner George, but that remains to be seen.

3) MSU is No. 1 in the nation in assists/field goals made. That’s super impressive and makes me think that the Spartans are playing an aesthetically pleasing style of basketball this year. How does Cassius Winston keep the offense humming along so well?

Cassius Winston is arguably (but not much argument from Spartan fans) the best point guard in the entire nation, and one of the smartest and most cerebral players in the NCAA as well. In my opinion, Winston’s best trait is his vision. He sees the floor so well and uses angles to put passes in spots that don’t even seem possible at times. He isn’t some incredible athlete who is going to be a top-five pick in the NBA Draft, but he’s special in every sense of the word. He commands the offense and everything runs through him. He just has this uncanny ability to make things happen and takeover with either his scoring or play-making abilities.

Defenses also have to respect Winston’s ability to shoot from deep or drive to the paint as well, so when defenses collapse in on him, you can almost guarantee he is hitting the open man in stride for an easy bucket. Purdue did a very good job of smothering him in the last game out, and may have provided a bit of a blueprint on how to take him out of games but he’ll adapt as he always does.

This has been an extremely difficult season for Cash, with the passing of his brother. He’s still fighting through that but has done an amazing job of balancing his grief with being the leader of the team. He’s a class act on and off the court.

4) Who is an under-the-radar player on the team that we can mention to our friends at the bar “look out for that guy” and sound smart?

Sophomore forward/wing Gabe Brown immediately comes to mind. Brown started the season on the bench, but has now worked his way into the starting lineup. He isn’t going to go off for 20-plus points, but he has an infectious energy that catalyzes his team. Brown is averaging 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He has great bounce and athleticism, so look for him to try to throw a couple of big dunks down. He’s also responsible for some pretty great GIFs:

Another player to watch is freshman guard Mark “Rocket” Watts. Watts — a highly-touted recruit — got off to a horrid start shooting the ball, and has also been battling a foot injury, but had arguably his most complete game yet against Purdue. It will be interesting to see if he continues to ascend his play. He still has a ton of work to do.

5) Prediction for the game and leading scorer for Michigan State?

Big Ten home teams have seemingly had a great advantage this season. The Breslin Center is an intimidating place to play for other Big Ten foes, so I like MSU’s chances in this one. I think Winston bounces back after the Purdue performance and scores around 20 points to lead the team, with plenty of dimes as well. Both teams are solid defensively, so I see a low-scoring affair, something like a 64-56 final, but who knows, really.