Ryan Mayer

The turning of the calendar to a new year means that the conference season is here for college basketball. And things are starting to heat up. Entering 2018, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans sit atop the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Spartans are 14-1 on the season, with their lone loss coming to the previously top-ranked Duke Blue Devils in the second week of the season.

Five payers average double figures, led by star sophomore forward Miles Bridges, who puts up 17 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per night. The Spartans have already played two Big Ten match-ups this season (Rutgers and Nebraska), winning both, and they open January with a pair of conference tests against Maryland tonight and then at Ohio State on Sunday on CBS. To break down the Spartans’ season so far, as well as give some insight into what they need to improve on, we caught up with CBS Sports college basketball analyst Bill Raftery.

CBS Local Sports: Michigan State sits atop the rankings for the first time this year, lone loss came early against Duke, what do you like when you watch Tom Izzo’s team this year?

Bill Raftery: I love their size, their depth, their ability to get up and down the floor. They rebound the ball well, are unselfish with the basketball. There’s nothing that’s really unattractive about the way that they play. What stands out the most is that they’re so sound defensively. That makes it very tough for teams to shoot well against them. They contest everything and, if one guy isn’t working hard on that end, there’s a guy on the bench that is willing to. And Tom isn’t afraid to go to him.

CBS Local Sports: What do they still need to improve on this season? Tom Izzo is always searching for ways for his team to improve, what does this team need to work on?

Bill Raftery: Like any team, not turning the ball over is a key area to continue to improve, and that’s the biggest issue for anybody. Once in awhile, because of the speed of play, they do get a little bit out of sorts. He (Izzo) has always been harping on rebounding, and he’s also been harping on making sure you push the ball on makes or misses.

Those are some areas where they can improve. Nobody’s flawless obviously. There’s been some cases where they’re fouling at inopportune times; Nick Ward will get some silly ones on occasion. Making shots on kick-outs is another thing, and McQuaid becomes really key in this area. We know the guards in Winston and Langford can make them.

They’ll keep at those areas. Make sure you’re not afraid to make the extra pass and, at the same time, you’re not afraid to be selfish at times. That’s what he harps on with Bridges, who’s such a talented kid and all about the team, but once in awhile, you’d like for him to just stay in his game as well.

CBS Local Sports: They open the (January) conference slate with games tonight against Maryland and then on Sunday against Ohio State on CBS, do you see any potential pitfalls in these two games for the Spartans?

Bill Raftery: Sure. Turgeon for example, at Maryland, there are certain things that they will try and do. They’ll be unafraid to push the ball but also unafraid to be patient either. You don’t want to get up and down, particularly with all of the injuries that Maryland has. It makes it very difficult to play at that speed and that level. The big thing for Maryland is making sure you’re checking out and that they don’t overpower you on the offensive glass.

There are little things, in style. Cowan, for example, is going to have to play a lot of minutes. They’re going to have to be concerned about how they play that point position. With him going full-tilt, will they have more difficulties, or will they slow it down and sub for him a little bit on occasion just to give him a breather?

On paper, both the opponents are not quite up to the same level as Michigan State, but you never play the same either. Certain things that clubs do, maybe they usually play man but instead they play a little more zone that particular night. Ohio State does a nice job on transition D, so that will force Michigan State to play really good half-court offense.

CBS Local Sports: The Big Ten as a whole seems to be underachieving a bit this season. There are just two Top 25 teams, and they were handled easily by the ACC in the Big Ten-ACC challenge, 11-3. Why do you think the league has struggled outside of the Spartans and Purdue?

Bill Raftery: It’s always more than one thing. Not being ready early enough in the season. A lot of teams sort of work their way into the season, and then they pay for it come tournament time. Now, road wins really become big-time in this conference.

Minnesota is still a very good team, and, of course, there’s Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan. But then some of these teams will get healthy, like Maryland. If they get everybody back, they’re a much better basketball team. Certainly with (Justin) Jackson back, although Bender’s out now, they really are shorthanded, so it makes it tough. Now guys like (Dion) Wiley have to step up; (Daryll) Morsell has to do a little bit more.

But, in terms of the future, It’s very big for all the teams that we left unmentioned to win on the road. If you can win at Michigan State or at Purdue, that’s going to do a lot for your pod situation at the end of the year.

CBS Local Sports: One of the other big stories this season has been the play of Oklahoma freshman Trae Young. What stands out the most to you about his play so far?

Bill Raftery: He reminds me of Mo Cheeks, believe it or not, physically. He’s not an overly imposing kid. But also the way that he runs the team. He’s unselfish, he makes shots, he makes tough shots, he makes floaters, he makes glass shots. He truly is worth watching if you’re a basketball fan. I watched him last night, and I’m just amazed by how many things he can do on the floor. He’s poised, his understanding of the game, everybody talks about angles and giving it up early. He does all of those things well. He’s just a pleasure to watch.

CBS Local Sports: Where would you rank him among the list of top freshmen we’ve seen over the past few years?

Bill Raftery: We’re going to be watching him for a long time. I just hope we’re not watching him for the last time in college. I’d love, selfishly, to see him a couple of years at Oklahoma, not only to help that program, but also to enliven the interest in college basketball. He’s one of those generational guys who people talk about the way they talked about Jason Kidd a few years back. Kids who just seem to see things that are beyond their age. The feel they have for the game just puts them in a special place.

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