Last year, the Spartans were No. 12 in the preseason AP poll, but they dropped out of the rankings entirely by week 4. This year, they came in at No. 2 in the preseason poll and haven't been below 4 since then. What's been the biggest difference for the team this season?
The team was badly bit by the injury bug last year, particularly in the frontcourt, as senior forwards Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter both missed all of last season with knee injuries. So when you factor in that — along with the addition of Jaren Jackson, who's 6-foot-11 and is one of league leaders in blocks as freshman — they just have a lot better depth this year.
The highly touted returning sophomore class (Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Miles Bridges, and Nick Ward) is another obvious reason this team has been so successful thus far; those four are all scoring in double figures. They were talented as freshman but lacked experience. After having to play heavy minutes last year due to the lack of depth, they've become an experienced bunch.
Miles Bridges decided to come back to Michigan State rather than declare for the draft after his freshman season. What improvements has he made as a sophomore? Are there areas where he can still get better?
You wouldn't be able to tell by just looking at his stats — while still good, his numbers have slightly decreased in most major categories — but Miles has actually become a more well-rounded player. Everyone already knew he could put up points and make highlight dunks; he's made an effort this year to not try to force the issue on offense and show his all-around game a little more, particularly with his passing and defense (take his recent 21-rebound game against Savannah State, for example).
He could get better in some areas, such as creating offense for himself in iso situations or becoming a more consistent long-range shooter. Ultimately, though, he has without a doubt the most complete game out of everyone on the team.
Cassius Winston is shooting 56.9 percent from beyond the arc. Is he really this great? Can he keep this up as Michigan State enters its conference slate?
Just like the other sophomores on the team, Cassius is being more aggressive offensively. He's attempting more than twice as many three-pointers than he did last year, and I think the reason for that is he is more confident. He's always been a good shooter, but now he's a more confident shooter, and while I don't believe he can keep shooting it at this high of a clip, I also wouldn't put it past him because he doesn't take bad shots.
One quasi-weakness for the Spartans this season has been free throws — they're shooting just 71.5 percent from the charity stripe. What have been the reasons for that? Can they turn it around down the stretch?
The team's free throw shooting is at that percentage mainly due to the frontcourt. Every frontcourt player not named Jaren Jackson is shooting well below 70 percent from the foul line. Obviously, close games down the stretch come down to free throw shooting, and that's going to be a growing topic of concern for coach Tom Izzo as the team heads into the heart of its Big Ten schedule.
Jaren Jackson ranks eighth in the country with 3.3 blocks per game, despite averaging just 22.8 minutes per game. How has the freshman terrorized opposing shooters like this?
Well, Jaren is a long dude. He's 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and is springy. That's a good recipe for becoming an elite rim protector. He still has trouble with fouling a bit too much and not staying on the ground on shot fakes due to his eagerness to get those blocks, but the freshman has a lot of defensive potential.
Fill in the blank: The Terps win this game if ______.
They keep the Spartans from getting out into transition as much as possible, which means they must make a high percentage of their shots. Michigan State likes to push the ball up the court and look to score as quickly as any team in the country, so getting back on defense will be critical for Maryland.