Long before Michigan State fell to Middle Tennessee in arguably the greatest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament, the common thought was that Tom Izzo was going to be taking something of a step back in 2016-17. He was guaranteed to lose at least three starters -- including Associated Press Player of the Year Denzel Valentine -- and freshman Deyonta Davis' huge upside also made him a flight risk.
Davis ultimately did choose to bounce, leaving Eron Harris as Michigan State's only returning starter, and making the reality of a national championship caliber team falling to a 15 seed in round one that much more difficult to stomach for fans in East Lansing.
Still, Izzo was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month because he knows how to adjust.
Knowing that a mass exodus was on the horizon, Izzo loaded up with the biggest and highest-rated haul of freshmen that he'd ever been able to bring to East Lansing. Leading that group is explosive 6'7 forward Miles Bridges, who will be relied upon to shoulder a heavy chunk of the Spartan scoring load right out of the gate. A consensus top 10 player in the 2016 class, Bridges could easily wind up following in Davis' footsteps by spending just one season playing for Izzo. Fellow top 40 recruits Nick Ward, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston should also compete for starting spots, or at least considerable playing time, from day one.
Of course the cupboard isn't completely bare without the first year players in the mix. Harris, a former West Virginia transfer, showed glimpses last season of being a capable go-to scorer for Sparty on offense. He was at his best when Valentine was sidelined with a knee injury in December, averaging 16.8 points per game over a five-game span. He'll team up in the backcourt with Tum Tum Nairn, who was performing terrifically as the team's starting point guard before plantar fasciitis derailed his sophomore season about halfway through. Senior forward Gavin Schilling also feels like he's finally ready to show the type of player he is after a torn ligament in his right toe last season became the latest in a long line of injuries that have set him back since his freshman year.
Despite losing four starters, Michigan State does have enough returning experience to make this a team that won't be completely reliant on fresh faces. Of course, that's assuming those returners can stay healthy for a full season, something that has been an issue with nearly every single one of them.
Assuming the roster is fully in tact for most of the season, the Spartans should be a capable offensive team thanks to having a proven scorer like Harris and a potential superstar in Bridges. In addition to Bridges' fellow freshmen, guys like Alvin Ellis and Matt McQuaid have also proven that they can step up fill an offensive void if the pressure on Bridges and Harris becomes too great.
Even though Izzo has been labeled as a coach who doesn't like to deviate a whole lot from his trademark style of dominating the glass and winning with defense, this roster, like the one he had a year ago, is versatile enough to allow him to experiment. Izzo wasn't afraid to go small at times last season, often with great results. Don't be surprised to see him mix and match lineups during the first part of the season to see which combination he feels gives his squad its best chance to get back in the national title mix.
To be fair, injuries are a concern for every single team in college basketball, and it's almost a guarantee that at least one national title contender will have its chances of cutting down the nets greatly diminished by a star player going down. Still, the issue feels more pressing for Michigan State than most, given the number of key returnees who have missed significant time over the years.
The bad news already started for Sparty with the announcement on Oct. 6 that graduate transfer Ben Carter is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Carter, who tore his ACL in the same knee last January while playing for UNLV, was expected to be a key frontcourt contributor for Michigan State this season. He still might be, or he might wind up sitting out the entire season with the hopes of being 100 percent for 2017-18.
Carter's absence, at least at the beginning of the season, puts even more pressure on the few forwards and centers that Izzo has on his roster. Freshman Nick Ward, who has already drawn comparisons to Zach Randolph in East Lansing, could wind up earning the starting spot alongside Schilling in the Spartan frontcourt. Matt Van Dyk will get an opportunity to compete for minutes after only seeing time in 19 games last season, and a larger role will be expected from Kenny Goins, who is returning from his own offseason knee surgery.
Regardless of how productive the forwards were who just left and how little experience the forwards who are returning have, Izzo always seems to find a way to get the absolute most out of his frontcourt. This will be one of his toughest challenges yet on that front.