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Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 11:05 AM

It’s been a rough start to the season for Tom Izzo and the proud Michigan State basketball program. Coming off a stunning first-round exit in last spring’s NCAA Tournament, the Spartans had some rebuilding to do with a number of freshman being counted on for key roles. Then the best of those newcomers, Miles Bridges, got hurt. Most of all though, the losses have simply piled up for Sparty.

Michigan State lost three high-profile neutral-site games to Arizona, Kentucky and Baylor all with Bridges in the lineup. Another loss came on November 29 at Duke. The bigger loss came when Bridges, averaging 17 points/9 rebounds per game, injured his ankle and has been on the shelf since.

All of those losses could be excused. The same can’t be said for a home loss to Northeastern that left Izzo scrambling for answers. His team ranks only 59th in the country in offensive efficiency and 58th in defensive efficiency. Las Vegas has taken notice and the Spartans are priced at 55-1 to win the NCAA title, a figure that puts them in a neighborhood with Xavier and St. Mary’s. A home game tonight against Oakland is against a feisty program that pushed Michigan State to overtime last year.

Amidst this early-season carnage though, there is reason for some optimism. Let’s start with a couple other freshman who have showing real sparks of promise. Another forward, Nick Ward, is averaging 12 points/6 rebounds—the third-leading scorer on the team, even though he’s only topped 25 minutes in a game once. Cassius Winston at point guard is averaging six assists per game.

Both players could help with increased roles. More minutes from Ward and perhaps more shots for Winston. While it’s not ideal to have your point guard as a primary shooter, Winston does hit 52% from two-point range. He’s currently averaging only 7ppg, but if he gets a few more looks it could increase Michigan State’s offensive efficiency and also force defenders to guard him a little closer, thereby opening up the passing lanes even further. Moreover, neither Ward or Winston were part of the problem in the loss to Northeastern. Ward put up 15 points and 7 rebounds. Winston knocked 21 points and handed out ten assists.

The best news of all though came today with reports that Bridges is out of a walking boot. He won’t play tonight and likely won’t be ready for the Big Ten opener on December 27, but his return is imminent.

So let’s consider—we have a program with a well-established head coach especially known for March success. We have the predictable early struggles of a young team, but a couple key players starting to emerge as the season turns the corner into league play. We have the team’s best player coming back from injury. And we have that same team available at very good prices, at least compared to where they’ve traditionally been.

That makes right now the time to be evaluating Michigan State seriously. The 55-1 won’t hold for long if the Spartans show real signs of life.

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