Michigan State Basketball: 5 bold predictions for January

The month of January will be big for Michigan State basketball and here are five bold predictions.

Losing Miles Bridges in the month of December was rough for Michigan State basketball, but surprisingly enough, the Spartans finished 6-1. If it weren’t for a major upset loss against Northeastern, Michigan State would have been 7-0 in the month with a 2-0 start to Big Ten play and an 11-4 overall mark.

Things are starting to turn around for this team, though. Michigan State has looked like its old self and wins over Minnesota and Northwestern to start conference play seem to feature the Spartans that we are used to seeing.

Tom Izzo’s team is playing tougher and the emergence of Cassius Winston and Nick Ward is only going to work wonders when Miles Bridges returns on Wednesday versus Rutgers. This team is headed in the right direction with 17 games remaining. If Michigan State can win at least 10 of those, it will likely be dancing in March.

Let’s take a look at our five bold predictions for the month of January.

5. Eron Harris returns to form

Dec 10, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Eron Harris (14) gets defended by Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles guard Hakeem Rogers (2) during the second half at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Spartans win 71-63. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the season, Eron Harris was expected to be the team’s leading scorer and the go-to guy in clutch situations. He’s a senior and was looking to be a leader like Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes were last season or Travis Trice was the previous year.

However, he has struggled. It seems to be a confidence issue as well as just flat-out not finding his shots. He has struggled to break free of defenders and gets swallowed up and disappears in stretches of games.

December was a forgetful month for him as he disappeared after the injury to Bridges. He averaged just 11.4 points per game, shooting 28 percent from long-range and 39 percent from the floor. He has been in Izzo’s doghouse in recent games — especially to start Big Ten play.

January will be the month in which he gets his confidence back and we will finally see the lights-out three-point shooter who we were expecting at the start of the year.

Harris will average 14 points and make 41 percent of his threes this month, getting himself back on track.

Dec 27, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Nick Ward (44) looks to pass against Minnesota Golden Gophers center Bakary Konate (21) during the first half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

4. Nick Ward averages a double-double

Nick Ward has been a monster this season. If there is one player on the team who has exceeded expectations in a big way, it’s the freshman big man from Gahanna, Ohio. It’s hard to believe he was rated the lowest out of all the 2017 commits as he has arguably played better than anyone — including Bridges.

However, it’s hard to really compare Bridges and Ward since the former has been out for the past month and was leading the team in scoring and rebounding before he suffered an injury.

Ward is going to have a big month of January, even with Bridges back, though. The freshman forward will average a double-double in the month and improve on his already-impressive marks for his first season in East Lansing.

There’s been some debate about who the best freshman in the Big Ten has been and both of the top candidates are on the Spartans’ roster. Bridges won two Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards and Ward has won three.

It’s hard to find anyone in the country who has done more in limited minutes than Ward. In fact, he’s averaging 13.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in just 18.7 minutes. Expect those numbers to improve.

Nov 25, 2016; Paradise Island, BAHAMAS; Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo speaks with guard Miles Bridges (22) during the first half against the Wichita State Shockers in the 2016 Battle 4 Atlantis in the Imperial Arena at the Atlantis Resort. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

3. Miles Bridges needs three games to get back to old self

By the time Miles Bridges steps onto the court on Wednesday against Rutgers, it’ll have been 36 days since he played a meaningful minute of basketball. He hasn’t seen the floor since Nov. 29 against Duke in which he played a solid game in a losing effort — arguably the Spartans’ best loss of the season.

That long of a rest period between games can have a negative affect on a player. I’m not saying Bridges has lost a step or even his confidence, but he does need to get some of it back by repetition. Seeing the floor in limited time against the Scarlet Knights won’t allow him to regain every last ounce of confidence.

It’s going to take a few games for Bridges to feel comfortable on that ankle and for him to feel like he has his spring back.

Before his injury, he was the team’s leading scorer, 16.6 points, and rebounder, 8.8 boards, but now he will have to ease into a role which is more comfortable for him. He’s not going to come in right away and dominate, but he will after a few contests of being a role player.

I say it will take a week before Bridges is back to his old form, playing it safe against Rutgers and Penn State before then. By next Wednesday against Minnesota, the freshman sensation will be back to his old ways.

Jan 7, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Gavin Schilling (34) reacts to a play during the 1st half of a game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

2. Gavin Schilling returns

Is it official? No, but there’s a feeling around the program that Gavin Schilling might return at some point this season. While that might not seem like a big deal since the Spartans have been without him for over two months now, getting Schilling back would go a long way in helping a deep tourney run.

According to reports, he’s being re-evaluated in the middle of January and that will decide his fate this year.

I’m going out on a limb on this one and saying that Schilling will return. He has been without crutches for the past couple of weeks and seems to be walking without a limp. Unfortunately, I don’t have inside access to practices and can’t tell you if he’s working on the stationary bike or even jogging, but it seems like Izzo is hesitant to say he’s done for the season.

Without Schilling, it’s clear that the Spartans struggle down low. Michigan State is usually an elite rebounding team, but without the big man, they have been nothing more than average. That has to do a little with the absence of Bridges as well, though.

With Ben Carter out for the season, the coaching staff has a decision to make: will they pursue the return of Schilling for a couple of months or redshirt him?

In my opinion, having Schilling down the stretch this year will be more valuable than having him next year when more post depth will be coming in.

Dec 6, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; (Left to right) Michigan State Spartans guard Miles Bridges (not dressed) guard Cassius Winston (5) and guard Kyle Ahrens (0) celebrate from the bench during the second half against the Youngstown State Penguins at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Spartans win 77-57. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

1. Michigan State will go 5-1 in the month

The month of December turned out well, outside of one blemish, for Michigan State and I’d expect January to be the same way. Fortunately for the Spartans, the schedule for January is quit favorable.

Must Read: MSU Basketball: Report card for non-conference play

In fact, it starts out with Rutgers on Wednesday and then Penn State, both at home, the following game, which should be two more wins and a 4-0 start in conference play. Then Minnesota will come to town for a rematch of the Big Ten opener which could be the Spartans’ toughest matchup of the month.

Minnesota is out for blood and that could be a loss for Michigan State, but I say it will end up winning by three. At Ohio State would have seemed like a daunting task earlier in the year, but the Buckeyes just don’t seem to have that killer instinct this season.

The game that worries me most this month is at Indiana and that’s the one loss I see on Michigan State’s January slate. Playing at Assembly Hall is never an easy task and this year’s Hoosiers team can beat just about anyone.

Hosting Purdue the following week will also be a tough matchup, but the Breslin Center crowd is going to get in Caleb Swanigan’s head, for obvious reasons, and the Spartans will find a way to win with a smaller lineup.

Lastly, Michigan comes to town looking to take down the Spartans just like football, but that won’t be the case as the Spartans put the beatdown on the Wolverines.

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