Perhaps the expectations for the 2019-20 Michigan State men’s basketball squad began to inflate before last season even reached its end — at Capital One Arena in March, the moment the Spartans’ set of mature veterans advanced to the Final Four by knocking off the one-and-done stars of Duke.
The Spartans touted experience and poise against their freshman-laden foe through the final moments, when point guard Cassius Winston secured the inbound pass and dribbled out the clock. Just 1:33 before, the Spartans trailed by three and called a timeout. With tension high, Winston told his teammates to relax, that they’d be fine.
“And, boom, it felt like we were back in,” Xavier Tillman, now a junior, said before this season began. “It felt like it was a tight game as soon as he said that. As far as being that intellectual player, he just knows what this team needs.”
When Michigan State lost its next game, a Final Four matchup against Texas Tech, the locker room wasn’t too somber, Tillman said, because the team had already begun channeling emotion into next season. NBA decisions still had to be solidified, but the Spartans returned three starters from that game: Winston, Tillman and Aaron Henry.
So through the offseason, the Big Ten’s most pressing question involved which programs would have the best chance of chasing the No. 2 spot.
Now, a month into the season with conference play beginning this weekend, the Big Ten has congestion at the top. Michigan State has fallen three times — in a rematch against Duke, as well as to Kentucky and to unranked Virginia Tech. Ohio State hasn’t lost yet and just cruised past North Carolina, undoubtedly the conference’s most impressive win during this week’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Maryland, which returned seven of eight rotation players, is 9-0 and has played well in some moderate tests. Purdue stands at 5-3 but this week beat Virginia, perhaps a squad with vulnerabilities but the defending national champion nonetheless.
All four of those teams rank in the top seven in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics-based ratings. Three more Big Ten teams (Michigan, Indiana and Penn State) are in the top 25. Coach John Beilein left Michigan for the NBA, but the Wolverines are already exceeding expectations under first-time head coach Juwan Howard. Purdue lost standout shooter Carsen Edwards, but Coach Matt Painter frequently positions his group to finish in the conference’s top tier.
“I’ve been watching the recruiting for the last few years, and I know how good the coaching is, so it’s good to see,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said Friday when asked about the conference’s quality at the top. “... It was a good showing in the challenge. We won, which is great. So that helps. But no, it doesn’t surprise me.”
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Eight of 14 Big Ten teams played in the NCAA tournament last season, with seven of them winning an opening-round game. This season, the conference is “maybe a little bit better at the top than we were” a year ago, Turgeon said before this season, “but every bit as deep.”
Even some teams without a marquee win have returners who give them a boost, such as Lamar Stevens at Penn State and Ayo Dosunmu at Illinois. Both of those teams beat the Terps last season; Maryland hosts Illinois on Saturday and visits Penn State on Tuesday to open conference play.
Beginning with the pair of early December conference matchups and extending into January, the proper ordering of teams will become clear. But with Michigan State slipping a bit and other teams surging, the conference no longer has a runaway favorite.
The No. 3 Terps stand higher in the Associated Press poll than any other Big Ten team, behind only No. 1 Louisville and No. 2 Kansas. When Maryland faced Marquette in the Orlando Invitational final this past weekend, the defense shut down Markus Howard, the nation’s leading scorer. The Terps have a well-rounded squad with senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and an abundance of players who can reach double figures any given night. But Maryland’s best win remains that Marquette game, with a more difficult contest not coming until later this month at No. 16 Seton Hall.
Turgeon said earlier in the season he didn’t think his team had quite earned its ranking, which began at No. 7 and has only risen since. After Maryland beat the Golden Eagles in Orlando, Turgeon was asked if the Terps had justified the number in front of their name.
“We’re getting closer to the team I thought we’d be,” he said. “I think that’s really more important.”
But he also rattled off how Michigan and Ohio State had played like top-five teams, while Michigan State faced what Turgeon called a “brutal schedule.”
The Buckeyes, who jumped to No. 6 in the AP poll even before their win over North Carolina, are the nation’s second-best group in Pomeroy’s ratings. Junior Kaleb Wesson has emerged as one the best players in the conference, nearly averaging a double-double.
Michigan, though, has perhaps surprised the most. Initially pegged to finish in the middle of the conference, the Wolverines knocked off two top-10 teams, North Carolina and Gonzaga, at their Thanksgiving tournament and surged from unranked to No. 4 in the AP poll. Top-ranked Louisville brought the Wolverines down a peg with a dominant, 58-43 win Tuesday, but Michigan has made its case that it will figure into a crowded field at the top of the conference.
Howard, who played on Michigan’s “Fab Five” teams in the early 1990s and then in the NBA until 2013, had never been a head coach, but he has longtime Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli on his staff. Michigan’s trio of top scorers last season all departed for the NBA, but returners Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers were regular contributors a year ago.
Before Howard’s emotional introductory news conference, he met with the team briefly, sharing his vision for the program and easing any concerns that might have accompanied the transition phase. No players decided to transfer.
“After that meeting,” Livers said, “I can guarantee everybody was like: ‘Never mind; I’m not interested [in leaving]. I want to stay here.’ ”
So Howard inherited a group poised to play well. The Wolverines, who couldn’t manage to beat Michigan State in three attempts, made it to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament last season. They have a top-10 defense, according to Pomeroy, and will open conference play against Iowa, Friday’s lone Big Ten matchup before more start streaming in through the following days.
That brings us back to Michigan State, which still has a wealth of experience and one of the nation’s best players in Winston. Coach Tom Izzo said in October, “I’ve got a good team that I like with still a lot of question marks,” which proved to be a more accurate assessment than those labeling the Spartans the surefire favorite to the win the Big Ten. Izzo lost two seniors, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, along with junior Nick Ward. Those three combined to average about 31 points and 18 rebounds.
But Izzo’s teams have been through this before. Even last season, the Spartans started 5-2 and had a three-game losing streak during conference play before their Final Four run. In 2015, Michigan State started 5-3 and eventually made it to the Final Four. The Spartans still have room to find their rhythm and reach the same level of success or more. Their players don’t lack talent or confidence to match the early projections.
“We want to be great,” Tillman said in October. “We don’t have a fear of being great at all.”
Only now, the Spartans have a few more teams standing in their way.