Reinvented Arizona, Michigan State open in Armed Forces Classic
The Arizona-Michigan State game is one of the top matchups on college basketball's opening weekend. And it's almost impossible to say how it will play out.
The 10th-ranked Wildcats and No. 12 Spartans are national powerhouses just starting the process of reinventing their rosters, while dealing with injuries and other concerns, as they tip off their seasons Friday night from Honolulu in the Armed Forces Classic, beginning at 7 p.m. ET.
“They have some new guys, they have some old guys,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of Arizona. “Where we are a little bit weak right now is that our old guys don't have as much experience as theirs. But I like our new guys a lot.”
Arizona has four new starters, including two true freshman starters — guard Rawle Alkins and power forward Lauri Markkanen, a 3-point shooter and NBA lottery prospect who was the team's leading scorer with 21 points in its final exhibition game against Chico State on Sunday.
Izzo is set to unleash what is called his finest recruiting class, a four-man group led by wing Miles Bridges, who had 53 points and 15 rebounds in two exhibition games. Forward Nick Ward and guard Cassius Winston will be key parts of the rotation, and guard Joshua Langford is expected to play after missing both exhibitions due to a hamstring injury.
Michigan State — also replacing four starters from last season — will be without big men Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling due to knee injuries. That leaves Ward, at 6-8, as the team's tallest player.
Arizona, meanwhile, will be without returning leader scorer Allonzo Trier due to reported ongoing eligibility issues; coach Sean Miller has not commented on those. The Wildcats also lost redshirt freshman forward Ray Smith to a third ACL injury during the first exhibition. He has retired from basketball.
Miller was down to seven scholarship players in the second exhibition but said sophomore post player Chance Comanche should be good to go after serving a suspension due to academics. Comanche (6-11) joins a front line that includes 7-footer Markkanen, 7-foot center Dusan Ristic and 6-9 forward Keanu Pinder, a junior college transfer.
“With Chance, we're a much different team,” Miller said. “You can't underestimate 6-foot-11, offensive rebounder, defensive rebounder, the ability to give us great size and depth up front.”
Between the teams, as many as seven true freshmen are expected to see significant minutes.
As for the returnees, Arizona has senior combo guard Kadeem Allen, a defensive ace who averaged 8.4 points per game last season. Ristic, a junior, is a skilled low-post scorer. Junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright takes over point guard duties from Allen, who will be more off the ball this season.
Michigan State is expected to surround Bridges with senior guard Eron Harris (9.3 points per game last season as a 22-game starter), junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn, sophomore guard Matt McQuaid and sophomore forward Kenny Goins.
X-factors will be all over the court with new guys and veterans in much bigger roles.
“Our worries is just our depth and size right now,” said Izzo, who has never coached against Miller. “Our strengths are I think we can shoot the ball and I think we can be a team that can run very well. Our other worry is whether we can defend and rebound.”