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So now what?
Feels like those words have been written many times over these last eight months, yet they apply to so many areas of life in a pandemic.
For Michigan State football, it means mending the wounded during an unexpected bye week caused by the cancellation of Saturday’s game at Maryland. It also gives the Spartans time to make up for a few of the many practices and time to work on fundamentals they’ve lost since March. Mel Tucker said Thursday night on his radio show his team also will start preparing for next Saturday’s game against Northwestern this weekend.
For MSU basketball, it meant getting ready for Wednesday’s season-opener against Eastern Michigan without Tom Izzo, who has been recovering from COVID-19 at home. That will begin a seven-game nonconference schedule that, pandemic be damned, is again among the nation’s toughest.
For sportswriters? It means shifting gears on the fly, adjusting schedules and figuring out travel logistics and feasibility sometimes hourly.
So now what?
Those three words are the perfect transition into this week’s mailbag, since many questions are looking ahead to the future of football and hoops. Send your questions weekly via Twitter (@chrissolari) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
How long does (Mel Tucker) have until he has to start to produce winning games? There has been a lot of excuses this year, but we still are not seeing progress on the field. — @5432Bogeyman
I’m not sure they are excuses as much as explanations this year with the abnormal circumstances. They bear repeating: the timing of Mark Dantonio’s sudden retirement after the AFCA convention, Tucker’s hire late in the normal college football calendar, the new coaching staff, the pandemic shutdown, no spring practice or normal summer workouts, the two-week COVID-19 shutdown for MSU, the Big Ten calling off the season and the Big Ten restarting the season a month later all made this season tougher. This makes personnel decisions, poor play-calling and execution, substandard conditioning and other details for a first-year coach coming from another school understandable — it is a feel-out process happening in real time. Energy, effort and improvement are the three areas that matter now. To me, the clock begins next offseason with Tucker beginning to reshape the roster in his vision and should follow the four-year window coaches need to stamp their brand and show progress. Remember, it took Dantonio until his fourth season in 2010 to win a Big Ten title.
ATTRITION BEGINS: Mel Tucker to Michigan State players: Give effort or get out
Taking into account the current and, most likely, future Spartan football roster upheaval, is it fair to assess most of the blame for coach Dantonio’s troubled final years to poor recruiting — lack of talent — rather than ineffective X's & O's coaching? — @Althelion
In retrospect, doesn’t this season so far feel like a 2016-2019 Dantonio team, plus some added sloppiness of a short offseason? Bad offense, solid but not elite defense, inconsistent special teams. — @SandPCarl
Those teams dealt with repeated injuries on the offensive line, particularly the past two seasons. What’s happening now is the result of lack of reps together, blended with the downturn in recruiting and inability to adapt to the offensive evolution in college football. It isn’t that this roster is devoid of talent, but it is visibly lacking in some positions and young in others. The defense shifting philosophy also takes time, both schematically and in adjusting the roster makeup accordingly. As for special teams, that is certainly, to me, the one area that needs to get under control quickly. Field position was a quiet reason for the win at Michigan and a problem in the three losses. That is something that needs to show massive growth over the remaining games.
In your opinion, is the starting QBs at the start of the 2021 season on the roster right now? I think that they will be looking hard at everything in the transfer portal including QB. – @Handyrya
This is probably where the remaining three-plus-one games are vital, if they are played. Going back over notes this week, Dantonio used the first week of bowl practice to begin the quarterback competition for this season … then he played Brian Lewerke for the entire Pinstripe Bowl. We all know what happened next. None of the three — Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day and Payton Thorne — got meaningful time last fall. The competition they prepared for did not happen, and the new coaching staff did not get to learn their strengths and weaknesses without spring and summer practices. That altered the timeline significantly. What we are seeing now, after practice finally began in late September, falls closer in line with where MSU would be at going into a season opener in a normal year — consider September-October as making up the Spartans’ spring time missed, and October-November was basically the month of preseason camp. That, to me, was why opening with Lombardi, who had three games of starting experience, over the others made sense, as it would allow the others to be evaluated in practice.
QB COMPETITION: Rocky Lombardi or Payton Thorne?
STOCK WATCH: Quarterbacks trending in opposite directions
Lombardi’s body of work is pretty extensive. The next six months will display what direction Tucker wants to go next season, just like the next month will prove if Thorne, Day or possibly Noah Kim are viable long-term talents. As for making a jump for a transfer portal QB, Tucker has expressed his willingness to transform MSU’s roster into his vision with whatever tools are at his disposal. It clearly is the opposite of Dantonio — the only inbound QB transfer I can recall on his watch was Keith Nichol, who ended up at receiver. But times and coaches have changed.
Are you surprised that MSU basketball is getting no love to win the Big Ten title? Are writers underestimating the importance of the additions of Joshua Langford and Joey Hauser? – @DavidJa88692244
The question marks of replacing Cassius Winston at point guard and Langford’s uncertainty after foot issues explain the preseason predictions. MSU unquestionably has the talent to four-peat as regular-season Big Ten champs, but the veteran depth and returning star power at Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin is why those three are picked above the Spartans in the media poll conducted by our partner The Columbus Dispatch in conjunction with The Athletic. Remember, the small forward spot a year ago was a concern, but Hauser’s arrival will solidify that. The center spot with the departure of Xavier Tillman now becomes a concern. The media knows Izzo’s history, and to be picked among the top four with so much parity and talent in the league this winter shows writers haven’t forgotten who is reigning champ.
What is Marcus Bingham's ceiling as a player this year, and what 2 things are key for him to bring that potential out? What does Aaron Henry have to potentially improve on from an offensive perspective? What do you see as Mady Sissoko's role on the team this year? — @SlamSHADYSSB
Bingham starting at center would make MSU a matchup nightmare for opponents to defend on the perimeter. His shot-blocking is known, but two things he needs to show to seize that job are ball-screen defense and rebounding physicality. Those are critical to earn minutes for Izzo. Sissoko comes in physically ready to contribute on the boards with his swatting ability, but understanding defensive assignments and switches will be his primary learning curve. MSU doesn’t need him to score right now.
As far as Henry, he needs to simply do what he has done his first two seasons — multiplied by 3. That means attacking the basket and looking to score first before thinking pass; it means facilitating off the dribble in the lane more often without Winston and Tillman’s court-savvy presence; it means helping offset Tillman’s departure by crashing the offensive glass more frequently and consistently.
The Spartans don’t play Saturday. What are you gonna do this weekend? — @TheRealUDJG
Catch up on basketball preview stuff while watching other games. You didn’t think this would be a weekend off for the sportswriters, did you?
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State mailbag: Is the 2021 starting QB on the roster?