I would not have believed it if I didn't see it. With the season on the line, against a Syracuse team playing its signature 2-3 zone that the Spartans were struggling to shoot over, Tom Izzo saw fit to play Ben Carter and Xavier Tillman 45 combined minutes. This, compared to Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson's combined 31 minutes.
Sure, Jackson was not having his best game. He finished with just 2 points on 0-4 shooting. Tillman's line (5 points, 5 shots, 12 rebounds, 2 turnovers) was hardly better. And while Nick Ward's 4 turnovers did not help matters, neither did Ben Carter's complete absence from the offensive end of the floor (2 FGAs in 23 minutes).
But that's all using the wrong standard. Comparing how the game is going for competing players and opting for the "hot hand" is something you do when you have even reasonably comparable players. Jackson is 19 years old and could be starting on an NBA team any day now. Ward made the preseason All Big Ten team. Tillman was just a freshman last year, but until late February largely played in mop up time. Carter signed with an Israeli team after the season. Short of something extraordinary happening in that game, it's hard to come up with a justification for sitting two of your best players.
But Izzo does this kind of thing. Ward has been locked into a strange timeshare with Kenny Goins, a 6-6, well—let's be honest, he plays center unless you want to assign Jackson with that label—for his time in East Lansing. There are a lot of stats I could use to explain why Ward is a substantially better player than Goins, but here's a good one: Goins has played in 92 games at Michigan State. He's made 91 shots. Ward has played 70 games; he's made 342 shots.
This is not a close call. Yes, I understand the concept of a "backup" and "foul trouble," but that doesn't explain why Ward and Goins played roughly the same number of minutes in the 2016-17 season. Last year, Gavin Schilling returned to action and proceeded to take minutes from both Goins and Ward (Ward's minute percentage actually went down). I guess Schilling over Goins is an improvement, but it still feels like Izzo is missing the plot.
I suspect I know what's happening here. Maybe more than any other coach in the Big Ten (though McCaffery might give him a run), Tom Izzo likes depth. He does not just want it for a safety blanket in case of injury or suspension, he wants to use it. This is not a new concept, or mine, and I acknowledge its existence. Heck, I won't even push back on the idea that it's a righteous pursuit.
But the Syracuse game, the Kenny Goins nonsense, the Nick Ward theater...all of it reminds me of something that once happened to me professionally.
Here's where I admit to you guys that I'm a lawyer. I was really hoping this day would not come, but yes, I'm one of the 50,000 or so lawyers who also blog about sports.
A few years back, I was on a litigation when we were handed a very surprising, very bad, ruling. We were right, we knew we were right, the motion we filed seemed almost perfunctory. The judge got it wrong, and I can say that now because many months later the judge was reversed. But in the aftermath of the initial ruling, we were shellshocked. We (us associates on the case) brainstormed our next move, and inevitably the conversation honed in on how we could file what amounted to pretty much a "Do Over, Please?" motion that we were trying to disguise as something else.
That's when the Partner came in, asked what we thought about the ruling, and what ideas we had for how to proceed. It was here where we thought we would receive many hearty compliments for our clever plan, for being so cunning as to fool the judge into reversing herself. About halfway through, he stopped us, paused, and gave some advice that I consider some of the best I've ever received.
"Look gang, we can sit here for a while and talk about how nice it would be if things went our way, or we can try to do something productive and figure out what to do in the real world."
I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. Tom Izzo recruits depth. He wants depth. He plays depth. But when he doesn't have depth, it doesn't make any sense to pretend otherwise. Izzo is a great coach, one of the best to ever roam the sidelines, but he's not infallible. Last year we saw that.
Which brings us to this season. I am not sold that Izzo has "Izzo Depth." There is a lot of talent on the team, however. There's the aforementioned Ward. Cassius Winston also made the preseason All Big Ten team and figures to be one of the best point guards in the country. Josh Langford offers shooting and hopefully more dependability inside the arc this year. Matt McQuaid is another excellent outside shooter. Tillman should improve as a sophomore, though probably still a low usage option. So, that's five. After that? You have Goins and the freshmen, none of whom are "instant impact" locks. Three are top-100 RSCI players, but the highest-ranked is at 62. And even if Marcus Bingham Jr. is good enough to get minutes, I've already named three frontcourt players that are probably ahead of him. Indeed, MSU's depth is more susceptible in the backcourt, where Winston and freshman Foster Loyer may be the only dependable ballhandling options.
It's worth noting that Izzo has won big with less talented teams. The 2009 team, which played Travis Walton 28 MPG, was no great shakes. But that team nonetheless made it to the title game. And let me be clear that I expect Michigan State to be nothing less than a Big Ten title contender, and probably the favorite. But that's a pretty normal set of expectations in East Lansing. If the Spartans are to have a better than normal season, I think it would behoove Izzo to accept that depth might just not be in the cards this year.