Tom Izzo has to be excited about what his players accomplished this year. | Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Even with the season cut short, there is still plenty of praise to go around.
It still feels weird, doesn‘t it? Only about a week ago the NCAA canceled its basketball Tournament due to the Corona pandemic and with that ultimately ended the season prematurely for most of the college teams across America. The Michigan State Spartans of course are no exception and will just have a large asterisk to stare at in the history books. Their shortened season was still full of accomplishments, both as a team and as individuals. Some of the latter shall be honored here with some awards for their outstanding seasons.
Most Valuable Player Award – Cassius Winston
Who else could it be… The senior point guard was hit hard by the tragic suicide of his beloved brother in November yet he still managed to hold everything together and lead this team to a Big Ten regular season title. Words can‘t really express the mental fortitude it took for “Cash” to fight his inner grief and to make sense of a game that probably didn‘t make much sense most nights. That alone makes his senior year and his performance special.
Statistically he averaged 18.6 points (on 44.8 percent from the floor, 43.2 percent from three) and 5.9 assists per contest, numbers that are eerily similar to what we all grew accustomed to a year ago already. Winston‘s impact though goes way beyond the numbers. Everything and then some started with him, he was the one player who almost always kept MSU afloat and in the game.
He might not have reached the historic 2000 points and 1000 assists landmark (and wouldn‘t have if the season had finished regularly) but he still broke Mateen Cleaves‘ school and conference assist record. He now ranks among the top 20 NCAA passers of all time and in that regard put a great finishing touch to a career that will forever be lauded as one of the best ever in East Lansing. Him kissing the logo at midcourt on senior night was never supposed to be the final image of his career but at least he left by winning his last game. What a player, what a human being.
Defensive Player Of The Year Award– Xavier Tillman
Pound for pound, there haven‘t been many better in the Izzo era as all around defenders than Xavier Tillman. We all know there have been a lot of great ones (including Aaron Henry, who had a spectacular defensive season) but considering how versatile, how smart and how silently dominant “X” has been in the latter part of his career, he certainly ranks among the green and white elite in that regard.
The Grand Rapids native had already proven himself last year as a terrific pick and roll defender and this year he became even better as a quarterback for one of the nation’s best defenses. NBA teams will drool over that trait but Tillman has a lot more to offer. He averaged 2.6 blocks and 1.5 steals per game, a ridiculous combination that gets even more special when you consider that Tillman is neither an elite jump and run athlete nor does he possess dominant length or size. He does it all with fundamentals, with instincts and with an unparalleled understanding of the game and his opponents. From time to time it almost seemed as if he participated in the opponent‘s huddle, a testament to his tireless work in the film room.
At times Tom Izzo shied away from putting Tillman on the opponent‘s best big man as he was concerned about foul trouble for his premier frontcourt weapon. In the latter part of the season though we saw Tillman switch to the hardest covers the Big Ten had to offer and he dealt brilliantly with a murderer‘s row that included outstanding players like Luka Garza, Daniel Oturu or Lamar Stevens.
Most Improved Player Award – Gabe Brown
After he fell ill in midseason Gabe Brown never really regained the form that made him a starter earlier and which earned him rave reviews from coaches, teammates and fans. Nonetheless, his sophomore campaign can only be described as a huge step forward and everything he did (and didn‘t) do this season will be a nice building block for the next few years.
Brown increased his production in almost every major category – most notably minutes (from 8.0 as a freshman to 21.9 as a sophomore), points (2.3 to 6.8), rebounds (1.2 to 3.6) and field goal percentage (39 percent to 43.6 percent). On offense he is still relying heavily on a jumper that he can get off whenever he wants but he also showed glimpses of a nicely developing slashing repertoire. His tremendous athleticism helped him to some downright nasty highlights this season and he should continue this trend as a junior.
The biggest improvement for him came on the defensive side though. He often struggled to guard as a freshman which resulted in spotty minutes throughout his rookie campaign. Now he has really bought into the defensive system and his tireless work on his own defensive game has really paid off. He uses his great length to his advantage, moves his feet surprisingly well for a player his size and he has limited the mental lapses to a minimum.
Freshman Of The Year Award – Rocket Watts
Saying that the beginning of the season was tough for Rocket Watts would be an understatement. The streaky combo guard with the million dollar handle struggled to even get his shot off early on and he raised quite a few concerns about his future among the green and white faithful.
Turns out though that a stress reaction in his lower left leg was bothering him since the summer and was responsible for him shooting 26.9 percent from the field in his first eight collegiate games. After a short break he came back healthy and showed everyone what Tom Izzo and a lot of recruiting services saw in him. For the final stretch of the season, he arguably became MSU‘s most dangerous scorer behind Cassius Winston, a player that put fear in the opponent‘s defense and who could go off at any point in time.
Watts had his best performances in the last four games of the season, averaging 17.8 points per game and helping MSU finish the regular season with a prolonged winning streak. The combo guard has shown an uncanny ability to create his own shot and has surprised many with his stellar defense. By next season he could already be one of the key offensive weapons for the Spartans, if not more.
Unsung Hero Award – Malik Hall
Overall it was an up and down year for Malik Hall but toward the end of the season it was a lot more up than down for the freshman. He got hold of the starting power forward spot next to Xavier Tillman and was a key contributor in MSU‘s late season surge toward the Conference Championship.
Aside from his coming out party against Seton Hall earlier in the year (17 points, 5 rebounds, perfect from the floor) Hall struggled at times with foul trouble, the task of defending bigger players and finding his niche as a tweener in the Spartans‘ system. He improved in all of these areas though over the course of the year and quietly turned himself into a rock solid performer now with a probably very promising future tomorrow.
His athleticism was a lot more impressive than he was given credit for and he showed glimpses of a tremendously advanced offensive game (like a turnaround jumper at the Maui Invitational that would make some NBA greats proud). Hall, despite being a bit undersized as a frontcourt player, also proved to be plenty tough and never shied away from contact or going where it might hurt a bit.
Any other awards you guys might want to hand out? Disagree with any of the above? Please feel free to fire away and stay safe out there!