There is no ignoring the fact that Tom Izzo loves senior leadership. The Spartan are losing four key seniors from this past class and the vacuum of leadership will surely be felt. So what lays on the horizon for the Spartans next season?
G Eron Harris 6’3” 185# (Red Shirt Senior) Expectations for next season: starter.
While sitting out last season for transferring Harris was lauded by many teammates and coaches as the best player on the team. You saw him get into the starting lineup this season after a rough start and frankly he can be his own worst nightmare. That is high praise for a player who averaged 14 points and two rebounds a game while playing 28 minutes. Next season he must drive more without the ancillary extra movement.
How he gets in trouble is that he has a lot of shake and bake moves and at times when he just needs to play the game. I have seen him try fancy layups when a dunk would have sufficed, or have a turnover trying to dribble too much when he could just drive. It isn’t that he is a show off at all. I think it is rooted in a lack of confidence in his ability. In case you think I am talking poorly about Harris, I have had this discussion with him.
Harris is a star that has to get out of his own way. He went from a scorer and a defensive liability to a scorer who is a defensive star. If he can elevate his scoring via driving to the rim and maintain or improve his defensive talent he will get a NBA shot. There is room in the league for people who can score and play defense like he does.
Izzo said of Harris in late February that, “I’ve been more impressed with Eron Harris in the last three weeks than I was all last year. And last year he did some things in practice that I couldn’t even believe. I say that because, not only has he, taking exactly what you said, I think he’s excited about it. It’s like a bad student who comes in, and all of the sudden he starts having some success, when I talk to our academic people they say ‘god, he’s excited about it.’ You know, Eron Harris has gotten excited about being a good defender; he’s gotten excited about his teammates thinking he’s a good defender. He probably spends as much time in the last two or three weeks, in fact I saw Matt Costello and Eron Harris in there when I left for this press conference, watching film, doing things that he wasn’t doing before. And it’s all part of the process, it’s all part of the learning curve, it’s all part of maybe doing something a little extra, then having some success and people realize you’re having some success – and you feel good about it. Usually offensive players don’t feel as good about defensive things as defensive players would feel as good about an offensive stat that they improved on. But he’s bought in and I don’t know if it’s because we constantly talk about the players before him that had some success. You know I look at a Charlie Bell as an example; Eron Harris could be like him, he’s a slasher and he can do things and who knows where is can take him. But he just improved his game by 50 percent, because he went from, to me, a very very average defender, to now he’s turned himself into a very good defender, his offense will start coming off of that, I already know that can be good. And he’s going to put himself in a position where as time goes here, I think his game’s going to really take off.”
G Alvin Ellis III 6’4” 205# (True Senior) Expectations for next season: key reserve.
Ellis was someone that most people close to the program thought would eventually leave. He had been a disappointment. That changed late this season. Ellis made a move when given a chance. At the end of the season Ellis was playing in key moments because of his defensive acumen. Had I told you before that Ellis would even have a defensive acumen most would be shocked! There is no one who deserves more respect for what he has done than Ellis. He is now a threat on both ends of the court and that earned him minutes. They weren’t given. He averaged three points, two rebounds and one assist while playing only eight minutes.
I asked Izzo about Ellis last week and he told me, “I think he matured as a person, and understanding that there are important things. Like you said, he was always a pretty good kid, but he’s taken care of things off the court, in the classroom, and he’s put more into his basketball, just like it’s supposed to happen for any one of us. If you put more in, you usually get more out. He is becoming more of a threat, and he’s starting to be more comfortable with himself, in his own skin, and we’re comforting for us to feel we have somebody we can go to.”
Listen to the praise Izzo had of Ellis at the Big Ten Tournament this year, “You know, when I look at this stat sheet and I see ?? again, we played 11 guys and 10 of them scored and Ellis made a couple big shots and made a great sweeping layup. But what Alvin has done is he’s been a lot better defensively. And he’s strong enough and big enough that I can play him and switch off on people. And so it’s great to see a guy who struggled for two years, hung with it. We almost didn’t hang with him. And he bounced back, and he’s making a contribution. And, again, he deserves the credit because he made a commitment this year. And, because of that, I think he’s playing better.”
Izzo foreshadowed better things from Ellis this season when he told us this fall, “the biggest improvement he’s made is basketball has become a little more important to him. You know, it’s got to be. I say that emphatically, but he has shown that. He’s played better. He’s done the opposite of Bryn; he’s lost weight, lost some body fat, and is probably the best shape he’s been in, and it’s helped his game. Breaking news, get in better shape, have a better game. That’s something for ESPN, I guess. But in Alvin’s case, he does have size. He does have experience. His jump shot has been really good. It’s a matter of him guarding a little better and finding a way to break into that lineup, and it’s going to be fun to watch guys try to break into the lineup.”
F Gavin Schilling 6’9” 250# (True Senior) Expectations for next season: compete for starter/key reserve.
Schilling was slowed by an injury early. The once starter is not only a terrific young man, but a solid player. If he can stay healthy this off season he could make the biggest jump performance wise on this team next season. If the adage that your seniors must have their best season for a team to be great, I suggest you keep your eyes on Schilling. Schilling averaged four points, three rebounds, one assist while playing 13 minutes a game.
When Kenny Goins went down with injury it was time to Schilling to shine and he stepped up. It is fair to say that the season was disappointing, but only because it was slowed by an injury and not because of character or effort issue. Matt Costello made an astronomical jump from his junior to senior year, I think Schilling could be poised to do the same.
How important is Schilling moving forward? Here is what Izzo said about him after Italy this summer and before his injury, “Schilling averaged 13, 14 points over in Italy, scoring better, offensive rebounding a lot better. I was watching tape of our game the other day, Kansas last year, and I look at Schilling on tape now, and I mean, he’s — it looks like Popeye. He’s gotten bigger, stronger, quicker, better. Still got to improve his hands. That’s probably the one thing. Has worked morning, noon, night and then some on his free-throw shooting, and shot very well over there and has shot very well in practice, and he’s another guy that I said when the lights go on, we’ll see how these guys respond compared to just being in practice or over in Europe where nobody can see you. But he has — Schilling has continued to do more. His motor is running at a higher RPM. He’s a tough match-up because of his strength. I’d say the two things he’s got to work on are his hands a little bit still, probably his shooting a little bit, and staying out of foul trouble.”
Listen to what Izzo said about him when Goins went down. It is telling. “You know, Gavin has really improved in practice. I mean, he’s in all the time, he was in this morning – we had a little walkthrough, but he was in after that. He’s spending more time with Mike Garland in the film room. He’s been in foul trouble again. He only plays 10 minutes a game, and I think he should be playing 15, maybe 18 minutes a game. I think he’s going to be very valuable.”
F Matt Van Dyk 6’5” 210# (Red Shirt Senior) Expectations for next season: important role player.
This last player for the Spartans next season is a walk on. You may think it appropriate that a walk on go last, but don’t read in to that. This will shock you but the pride of Imlay City has the best vertical on the team and is shockingly athletic. He is a glue guy. So critical in practice and with a full slate of talented freshman coming in, he will give them each a quick welcome to the Big Ten moment early in practice.
Van Dyk averaged one point, one rebound and one assist while playing just over two minutes per game.
Izzo loves Van Duke saying, “Matt Van Dyke is an interesting guy. He’s a farmer from — so I love the guy. He’s from over in the Flint area. Worked there all summer on the farm, came here and worked out, and all he did is had the highest vertical jump of anybody on our team. So not very often you have a walk-on with the highest vertical, and he really has improved his game. He could have played at a lot of places, and has actually helped us a lot. Whether he’ll get any playing time, I don’t know, but he has impressed a lot of my coaching staff and we’ll see what he does. He’s 6’5″ or so, pretty long arms, but an explosive jumper and a strong jumper and can play maybe the power forward position. A little undersized for that.”
I don’t think this senior class can offer the leadership of this past class, but that was the best senior class in Spartan history. What this class will offer is solid leadership on a very young team. Every one of them (like the previous class) is super young men off the court. This summer will be gigantic for all of them on a team that will be burgeoning with young talent needing the older leadership.