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Scouting Report: Michigan State Spartans

Basketball season is finally here!!!  Before diving in, a quick note on these scouting reports that will run prior to every game.  I am writing these as if they are being handed to you as a player.  I coached college basketball for the last 6 years before taking a job in the “real world” 3 months ago.  I am obviously not at practice every day (or any day) so this may not be exactly what Coach Cal is giving to the guys.  However, this is intended to A) give you a deeper insight into our opponent and B) give you an inside look at what a college scouting report generally looks like.  If I can get just 1 fan to scream TAKE AWAY THE 3 or NO RIGHT HAND DRIVES while at a bar then I’ve done my job.

Entering the 2019-2020 college basketball season Michigan State not only boasts the Preseason #1 ranking, but is also led by National Player of the Year favorite Cassius Winston. The reigning First Team All-American and Big 10 Player of the Year is back for his senior season and is looking to take Coach Izzo and the Spartans back to the Final 4.  Michigan State brings back other veterans such as Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry, and Kyle Ahrens who will all be expected to expand their roles this season.  Without further ado, let’s break down the Spartans.


#5 Cassius Winston: 6’1” 185 lbs, Senior Point Guard          

18.8 ppg, 7.5 apg, 39.8% 3pt

All-around playmaker.  Have to corral him off the ballscreen without over helping.  Apply as much on-ball pressure as possible to try and get over the ballscreen as quickly as possible. If you aren’t up in him and see the ball screen coming I think you can try to hop under it, especially if it is set higher. He is more dangerous heading downhill towards the basket than shooting a 3 behind the ball screen.  When you go over, the big man that hedges must keep him from continuing  downhill momentum.

Outstanding passer.  Will pick defense apart if you over help from the wings.  You need to be doing something when he drives; either take away the 3 or commit to making him give it up. 

Shooter.  84/211 from 3-point range last season.  No catch-and-shoot 3’s.  Great free throw shooter. Play without fouling.  Make him finish over you when he drives it, stay between him and the basket.  Get your hands up to contest the floaters.  Try and keep him going left when he drives so he has to shoot the floater/runner back into you with his right hand.

This is what it should look like when #5 Winston drives. See ball side wing stunting off a shooter, and #1 for TTU completes leaves #11 on opposite wing to come help.

#2 Rocket Watts: 6’2” 185 lbs, Freshman Guard                    

24.4 ppg, 5.7 apg (H.S. stats)

Super quick combo guard.  Good shooter; really likes to get a rhythm dribble with his left hand before going up.  Likes to shoot the pull-up J going left, more likely to go to the rim going right. Be ready to contest the pull-up Js.  Looks more comfortable shooting off the dribble than catch-and-shoot right now. Closeout to take away the 3 and then bounce back to be ready for him to drive it.  Until he makes a couple, I think you can play the drive more than him as a knock down catch-and-shoot guy. Will handle the ball to allow Cassius to play off the ball a little more.  Great athlete.  Good on-ball defender but will gamble some.

#11 Aaron Henry: 6’6” 210 lbs, Sophomore Forward                

6.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 49.5% FG

Lefty.  Very strong, physical player.  More of a driver than a shooter.  No left hand drives!  Good finisher.  Closeout to take away the obvious catch-and-shoot and then bounce back to guard against the left hand drive.  You can help off of him when he is on the perimeter.  Look for chances to stuff the gap off him when #5 Winston is driving and then closeout short to him.

Good athlete.  Can be a little loose with the ball.  Have to box him out.  Good offensive rebounder.  Will try and be more physical than you, you have to be ready to match his physicality.  Can look for opportunities to come take it off of him when he is driving, he is looking more to score than to pass.  

#15 Thomas Kithier: 6’8” 230 lbs, Sophomore Forward                        

1.6 ppg, 23/29 FG

Strong.  Not very aggressive offensive.  Gets a lot of buckets on the rim run in transition or secondary.  Cannot let him run harder than you down the court for an easy one.  Rolls hard after he ballscreens.  Right hand, left shoulder in the post.  ALL RIGHT HAND!  Just stay between him and the basket and sit on his left shoulder.  Box out.

Photo Courtesy of 247Sports

#23 Xavier Tillman: 6’8” 245 lbs, Junior Forward                                

10.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.67 bpg

Very strong, physical post player.  Capable shooter.  Take away the obvious catch-and-shoot 3s.  Looking to post up and score over his left shoulder with his right hand.  Keep him off the block.  Have to do your work early to not give up deep post position.  Fight around to a 3/4 front and stay active.  Must be physical!

Percentages really go down the further off the block he is.  Will drop step to the baseline and finish with his left.  No drop steps!  Once you take away the drop step play his left shoulder.  When #5 Winston drives it you can’t help “up” off Tillman.  That will lead to an easy dunk.

Looking for opportunities to duck you in.  Have to play lower than him and be ready to battle for position.  Be ready to help dig it out of the post off of #11, #15, or #0 and then recover.  Really crashes the offensive glass.  Be physical and box him out.


#0 Kyle Ahrens: 6’6” 210 lbs, Redshirt Senior Guard/Forward                

4.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg

Good athlete.  Physical wing that can play with smaller or bigger lineups.  Capable shooter.  Over half of his shots were 3’s but shot 29.4%.  Take away the obvious catch-and-shoot 3’s, but make him hit 1 before you really tighten up to him.  Will use the shot fake to try and drive it.  Likes to cut along the baseline as the ball is being driven.  Don’t get back cut!  Pretty aggressive when he is in there, looking to score.  Box him out!  Good offensive rebounder.

Foster Loyer – Image via

#3 Foster Loyer: 6’0” 175 lbs, Sophomore Guard

1.6 ppg

Backup Point Guard.  Shooter.  No 3’s.  Be there on the catch to take away the 3.  Not helping off of him.  27 of 44 shots were 3’s last season.  Get over ballscreens, he likes to shoot behind it if you go under.  Have to be ready to chase him off downscreens and get over flare screens.  If you switch you have to switch to take away the 3.  When he drives he is driving to pass.  Don’t over help when he drives!

#44 Gabe Brown: 6’7” 210 lbs, Sophomore Forward                            

2.3 ppg, 37.2% 3pt

Lefty.  Shooter.  No 3s!!!  43 of 59 shots were 3’s last season.  Good athlete.  No left hand drives. Wants to shoot catch-and-shoot 3’s.  Not helping off of him.  Take those away and then take away left hand drive.  Keep him off the offensive glass.

#30 Marcus Bingham Jr.: 6’11” 225 lbs, Sophomore Forward                  

 1.0 ppg, 1.1 rpg

Stretch forward.  14 of 21 shots were 3’s last year.  No 3’s.  Have to come out and take away the catch-and-shoot 3’s.  Going to try and block your shot defensively, be ready to play off 2 feet and shot fake around the basket.  Doesn’t want it to be physical.  Get up and bother him when he has the ball on the perimeter.  All right hand over left shoulder in the post.

#25 Malik Hall: 6’7’’ 215 lbs, Freshman Forward                

14.5 ppg, 4.7 rpb (EYBL Stats)

Can play the 3 or the 4.  Strong, smooth athlete.  More of a driver than a shooter but have to be there to take away the obvious catch-and-shoot 3’s.  Better driving it to his right.  Must box him out, he had 3 offensive rebounds in their exhibition.  Stay between him and the basket and make him score over you when he drives.

#34: Julius Marble: 6’8” 225 lbs, Freshman Forward          

16.8 ppg, 9.7 rpg (H.S. stats)

Plays hard, strong.  Right hand, left shoulder in the post.  Going to try and offensive rebound, have to box him out.  No right hand drives.

Michigan State Offense

• They will primarily be in some form of 4-around-1 Motion with a lot of ballscreens being set.  Lots of off-ball movement.  They always have downscreens or baseline pindown screens being set.  High ballscreens for Winston begin a lot of their possessions.  When he isn’t ball screening, #23 Tillman will look for opportunities to post up.

• Lots of different set plays from a Horns base (ball handler at the top of the key, forwards at each elbow, guards in each corner).

This “Horns” alignment is how Michigan St. will start a lot of half court possessions.

• Hit an elbow, other elbow downscreens to the corner.  Definitely will run this for #2 Watts, or will have #5 Winston start by handing off and exchanging places with a corner guy so he can be the one coming off the downscreen.

  1. Hit an elbow, ball side corner runs baseline to clear out that side.  #5 Winston downscreens for opposite elbow to get a catch at the top of the key.  Downscreen for #5 Winston and baseline pindown screen for the guy running the baseline.  Options on both sides.
  2. Hand off and exchange to the corner, opposite corner comes high to get a reversal. Backscreen set for the passer who reversed the ball, backscreener then sets a downscreen to the corner (#5 Winston) after he exchanged to that spot off the hand off that began the possession.
  3. One elbow guy sets a ballscreen and rolls to the block, #5 Winston turns and goes off another ballscreen from the other elbow guy who then rolls.  Other forward replaces from the block. Throw it back to the replace guy and look to go high-low into the post.
  4. One elbow guy steps up to set a ballscreen and then runs off a flare screen set by the other elbow.  They will usually have a shooter (might be another guard) set the ballscreen so they have a shooter coming off the flare screen.

• Like to isolate #11 Henry or #44 Brown at the top of the key.  Usually will have downscreens going on while they look for a driving opportunity.

Here is one of their favorite actions:

Michigan State Defense

Man-to-Man defense.  Solid gap principals, they aren’t going to get out and deny on the wings.  Will look to stuff the gap as you drive it.  They will switch a lot of off-ball screens and will switch ballscreens a lot as needed. Especially with the 5-man they will give a little hard hedge, but it kind of turns into a flat hedge if it is set a little lower or they don’t know it is coming.  Not super solid ballscreen defense.

Keys to the Game

• Win the turnover battle.  The Spartans were towards the bottom in the country in turnovers per game last year with 12.6 per game.  We have to apply ball pressure to take them out of their comfort zone.  Texas Tech did a GREAT job of that in the Final 4 last season.

• More shots than points for #5 Winston.  He is a great player but we have to make him work for what he gets.  No layups.  Get your hands up when he drives and make him finish with you between him and the basket.

• No 3’s for #3, #44, or #30.  No catch-and-shoot 3’s for #5.

• Limit 2nd chance points.  This is always a strength of Coach Izzo teams.  #23 Tillman is a beast inside.  Henry & Ahrens are physical wings that will look to crash the glass.  Have to box out!



Article written by Brandon Ramsey

Basketball X's & O's for KSR. Follow me on Twitter: @BRamseyKSR

8 Comments for Scouting Report: Michigan State Spartans

  1. Jaxxon1973
    12:10 pm November 5, 2019 Permalink

    Well done!

  2. Lip Man 1
    12:19 pm November 5, 2019 Permalink

    Read Cal’s comments Sunday about playing in this tournament and lamenting why it is played so early in the season.

    I see his point considering UK is usually a very young inexperienced team.


    Remember he doesn’t have to play in this tournament. This is his choice.

    There are plenty of other tournaments around Thanksgiving and Christmas that he can get into if he wishes.

    So for him to be a little upset is somewhat disingenuous.

    And as far as playing some games in August? That’s ludicrous. These kids are already basically working year round with little to no time off to rest their bodies…and he wants more wear and tear? August is usually when the players get the chance to go home for a few weeks before school starts.

    We need to keep things the way they are.

    • nocode96
      12:57 pm November 5, 2019 Permalink

      Aren’t we contractually obligated to play though? And if this was Cal’s idea, maybe he/UK signed said contract before this was moved to the first game of the season? I feel like I read on here just a day or two ago that this tournament hasn’t always been the first game of the season, only last year and this year.

  3. CatFanInLou
    12:38 pm November 5, 2019 Permalink

    I love this! Any chance we could get a similar breakdown for the Cats?

  4. Fly Cat
    12:49 pm November 5, 2019 Permalink

    Here we go! Another season of hope til the last buzzer sounds. Sometimes I wish I’d never been talked into going to that first game. I got hooked. Come out to Rupp they said, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.

  5. MtnCat
    3:14 pm November 5, 2019 Permalink

    Damn, I learned something

  6. BBN4LIFE03
    9:17 pm November 5, 2019 Permalink

    Simple: Limit Winston (Yes, I know its easier said than done)