We are aware that certain conferences and universities will not be competing this fall due to ongoing concerns surrounding COVID-19. However, for the sake of content, we have constructed these rankings as if a regular cross country season will happen.
If you read TSR on a regular basis, you may have picked up on the fact that many of us are NBA fans (professional basketball for those who aren't familiar). In fact, we'll sometimes incorporate some NBA comparisons and analogies into our articles and podcasts to get our points across.
We're nerds, we know.
The women of Michigan State are the NCAA equivalent of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs -- a historically dynamic professional basketball franchise for the past two decades that is/has been loaded with talent and depth while constantly finding success regardless of the scenario they're put in.
They have been known for their relentless consistency, major postseason success and flawless execution of basic basketball fundamentals.
The Michigan State Spartans often fly under the radar despite having won an NCAA team title as recently as 2014 and would have been a strong podium contender this fall. However, the Spartans are so strikingly similar to the Spurs that we can actually match them up, almost one-for-one.
Think we’re joking?
Take a look at how we cast the Michigan State Spartans as the San Antonio Spurs -- two teams in two very different sports, but two teams that have been structurally very similar (and in some cases, still are).
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Head Coach: Walt Drenth as Gregg Popovich
Both of these men are seasoned veterans, well respected by the other staff around their leagues. Drenth has been with Michigan State since 2004 and since then has earned BIG 10 Coach of the Year five-times, including last fall when his Spartans won the conference team title.
Drenth has a way of developing talent and helping his team rise to the occasion every season. Like Popovich, you can never count out a team with Drenth at the helm given their incredible ability to find talent that not only fits into his respective program, but is able to improve within the program as well.
The “Star”: Annie Fuller as Tim Duncan
Make no mistake, Tim Duncan is a Hall of Famer and one of the best to play the game. That said, he was rarely mentioned in conversations with the likes of LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe, etc. The now retired Spur is an underrated great and was a seasoned veteran with extensive postseason and championship success.
Similarly, Michigan State's Annie Fuller often flies under-the-radar despite being one of the most talented runners in the NCAA. She sits at TSR #15 in our preseason individual rankings and already has two All-American honors in cross country (2018 and 2019).
Her runner-up finish at the Great Lakes Regional Championships, finishing behind NCAA runner-up Alicia Monson, was arguably her best performance of the season last fall. Fuller was also 3rd at the BIG 10 Championships only two weeks prior.
Despite big performances like these, Fuller is rarely mentioned with the top NCAA stars, but certainly deserves that same respect and would have had an outside shot to place in the top-10 of the NCAA Championships this November had the meet not been cancelled.
The “All-Arounder”: Jenna Magness as Tony Parker
Tony Parker was an essential part of why the Spurs were so good for so many years. He didn’t garner as much national attention as some others and wasn't exactly an elite superstar, but San Antonio would have never had the success they did without him.
Not only was Parker consistently good, but he seemed to show up when it mattered the most and could do a little bit of everything on the court.
Jenna Magness is even less recognized than Fuller, although she was the 46th place finisher at the 2019 NCAA XC Championships and consistent middle-lineup scorer throughout last fall. She was also 7th at the Great Lakes Regional Championships.
In other words, she would be an extremely valuable scorer on almost any team in country.
Magness really developed into a budding star over the last three races of 2019, starting with a 16th place finish at BIG 10's. Her regional and national performances were only affirmation of her talent and naturally, it seems like an All-American performance would have been in the works for her this fall.
Magness is also a solid track runner (who has run 16:08 for 5000 meters) and like Parker, shows up when it matters most. She was a key player in the Spartans finishing 6th in the NCAA last fall and would have been in a true leadership role this season.
The “95%”: India Johnson as Derrick White
Current guard Derrick White is finding his way in the Spurs' organization. He has developed into a solid player, but is just a year or two away from really finding his form. While he already puts up solid numbers, he seems to be missing the last 5% that will really get him to his full potential.
Similarly, India Johnson was great for 95% of the 2019 cross country season. She started last fall with a solid 14th place at the Panorama Farms Invitational and followed that up with a 33rd place finish at Nuttycombe -- a much stronger field that held a ton of talent.
When she finished 14th at the BIG 10's Championships, Johnson looked ready to make waves heading into the postseason and maybe challenge for a top-50 finish if she continued her momentum and everything went perfectly in Terre Haute. Unfortunately, she would end up not running at the regional meet and falling back to 239th at the NCAA XC Championships.
If you look at everything but that race, Johnson was a great runner who provided a strong third or fourth scorer for the Spartans. If she had run similar this season, but carried that fitness through to November, Johnson could have been a fringe top 50 runner at NCAA's this fall.
The only difference between Johnson and White is that we're convinced Johnson will find that extra 5% whenever she returns to competition...
The “Consistent One”: Sarah Kettel as Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay has been a relatively consistent player throughout his entire career. From 2007 to 2016, Gay averaged between 17 and 21 points a game every season (which is quietly very strong). In fact, most of his stats held stable averages over that time.
For Michigan State, Sarah Kettel was that consistent presence. She was not going to surprise you with a huge standout showing, but she also was not going to fall apart when you needed her the most. When accounting for varying degrees of competition strength, most of her 2019 results are relatively equal -- finishing 76th at Nuttycombe, 36th at BIG 10's, 19th at the Great Lakes regional meet and 121st at NCAA's.
Kettel does her job and she does it well. The Spartans have two front-runners in Fuller and Magness as well as a potential third in India Johnson if she's at her best. This team doesn’t necessarily need more firepower to be competitive. However, what they do need are runners who can provide stability to round out their scoring five meet after meet which is exactly what Kettel provides.
It’s likely that 2020 would have seen Kettel perform similarly, with slightly higher finishes across the board. As long as she competes with the fourth and fifth scorers from other teams, she fits this role perfectly.
The “Comeback Kid”: Maggie Farrell as Dejounte Murray
In his first full season with the Spurs, Dejounte Murray was a budding star. He was setting records, being compared to All-Star Kawhi Leonard and earning NBA honors as only a second-year player.
Then he got hurt and missed an entire year.
Another year later, and he seems to be on his way back to where he was before the injury.
In 2018, Maggie Farrell looked like the next All-American talent for Michigan State. She was coming off of a strong freshman year and recorded a couple runner-up finishes, as well as a 4th place at the BIG 10 XC Championships. Her 72nd place at NCAA's was not as strong as many expected, but she was still rising fast and would surely be better the next season.
When her junior year came around, Farrell didn't quite replicate that 2018 success. She was running okay, but nowhere near expected. She opened the season and finished well behind most of her teammates at the Panorama Farms Invitational, but only made the "B" race at Nuttycombe. She was 33 places worse at BIG 10's and ended up finishing 137th at NCAA's.
The question remains: will Farrell bounce-back like Murray? If she replicated just some of her 2018 success this fall (and we think she will whenever she returns to competition), then Farrell could have boosted this team onto the podium.
The Support Staff
Despite all of the names we listed, the Spurs' bench never seems to run out of talent. In the past, players you have never heard of have stepped onto the court and lit up the hardwood. Whether it’s drafting well, development by Popovich, or a mixture of both, San Antonio always has more.
Similarly, it seems like the Spartans have limitless depth.
Despite naming off an entire scoring group already, the team also has runners such as Lindsey Rudden (33rd at BIG 10's), Noelle Adrianes (13th at Panorama Farms), Mikayla Perez (16th at Panorama Farms) and Lauren Cleary -- a freshman who was only 20 seconds behind Megan Sailor (formerly Hasz) of Minnesota at the Nuttycombe “B” race.
They also bring in Tennessee transfer Megan Murray, the 10th place finisher at the 2018 South Regional Championships. That's an extremely underrated name who could be a crucial varsity contributor whenever competition returns.
What the Spartans lack in big-name talent, they make up for with incredible depth.
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The Spartans are the Spurs of the NCAA. They aren't always the title favorites, but they are typically in contention for a top postseason finish and are constantly able to work with whatever roster pieces they are given.
Michigan State brings incredible depth and veteran coaching that pairs well with low-key stars in Fuller and Magness. This team would have made a great run for the podium this year, or possibly even higher, had a season taken place this fall.