Basketball season is upon us, and it's time to check out this year's edition of the Michigan State Women's Basketball team. Suzy Merchant appears to be in position for another satisfying season, with a good shot at 20 wins and a post-season run.
The team lost two very good players, but brings back five veterans with extensive experience in the Junior and Senior classes. These five will likely combine with three newcomers, two of whom are second-year players coming off medical redshirt seasons. The third was "Miss Basketball" in the state of Michigan last season.
Klarissa Bell and Kiana Johnson will start at guard, with Analise Pickrel and Becca Mills on the front-line. The fifth starting position could go to Jasmine Hines, but she didn't play in either exhibition game due to a concussion suffered in practice. It was the redshirt-freshman Aerial Powers who got the starts, and both games were runaway blowouts, so she may remain in the starting lineup next week at Notre Dame.
Powers comes off a medical-redshirt year along with Brandais Agee, and both play somewhere between point-guard and power-forward. Powers and Agee both came to MSU with strong high school credentials. Powers won Class B player-of-the-year twice and had a national player ranking in the 90s. Agee made the all-Detroit first team while finishing second for Miss Basketball. She played in five games for a total of 66 minutes last year. Both players are athletic and will compete for playing time with the only true freshman on the roster.
Tori Jankoska comes to Michigan State as the third Miss Basketball on the team, along with Bell and Hines. She's a shooter and a scorer, and lit up a few long ones in the first exhibition game. Her role will be to do what she does best, which is shoot over opposing defenses. Her challenge will be to earn playing time with the ability to play defense, a prerequisite for Merchant just as much as Izzo.
The five upper-classmen are very strong players who have played together for two successful seasons. Here's a quick review of their stats from last year:
- Klarissa Bell - Team highs in scoring, rebounding, and minutes played
- Kiana Johnson - Team high in FT%, second in assists, third in scoring
- Analise Pickrel - Team high in 3-point shooting, third in scoring
- Becca Mills - Team high in blocks, fifth in scoring
- Jasmine Hines - Team highs in FG% and offensive-rebounds
MSU has adequate size for top-level competition, but not the great height teams need to run all the way to the Final Four. Alyssa DeHaan is long gone, and Madison Williams has still not arrived. Bell is 5'11" on the perimeter to counter Johnson at 5'7". That combination is average for guard-height, and Jankoska is only 5'8". So the wild-cards are Agee and Powers, who could play the two-guard, along with Pickrel, who operates on the perimeter no matter her position. Those three range from 5'11" to 6'3", so they are the keys to height advantages on the outside.
Mills checks in at 6'4" while Hines is a very powerful 6'3". They have traditionally shared the Center position the last two seasons, as Williams has watched from the sideline. They can play together in a big lineup, with Mills switching to the power-forward, where she likes to draw big defenders away from the basket to shoot jumpers out to three-point range.
The X-Factor to the whole season is Williams, who is coming off her third knee surgery in as many years. The plan is to let her try to play in December or January, without any practicing to protect her knees. She has been a valiant Spartan warrior to fight through her medical challenges, but there is no way at this time to project her as a contributor. But you never know, so we'll just keep in mind that there is an X-Factor that stands 6'7".
The Spartans are not picked to win the league, but they should beat their Wolverine counterparts with ease at any time they play this season, as Michigan just lost five of their top six players from a 20-win team. The teams have a single regular season game, then a chance to meet in the conference tournament. MSU knocked UM out of the B1G tourney last year.