EAST LANSING -- Among Michigan State's many tasks as it spends the next six weeks preparing for the 2018-19 season: figuring out how to replace a unicorn.
The label of unicorn, basketball parlance for a big man who has the skills and athleticism of a guard, was often applied to former Spartans forward Jaren Jackson Jr.
In one year at Michigan State last year, Jackson was at the same time an elite shot blocker, 3-point shooter and post-up threat. He brought a total package rarely seen in a Spartans uniform.
Now, Jackson is gone to the NBA, and Michigan State has a hole to fill in its starting lineup and no more unicorns to fill it. The Spartans don't have any one player who can do everything that Jackson did, at least not right away.
Michigan State does, though, have a variety of different players who can bring different looks to the Spartans' power forward position. Deciding whether to go with a big man like Xavier Tillman or a smaller power forward like Kenny Goins is among the Spartans' key decisions of this preseason, Spartans coach Tom Izzo said.
"I think that is the biggest question in whether we go real big with (Tillman), whether we go a little smaller with Kenny," Izzo said. "We've also had a freshman or two that have impressed us."
Goins brings the most experience to the position as a fifth-year senior who has played in 92 career games, almost entirely at power forward. He's proven himself at rebounding and defense, in particular.
Tillman's inclusion as a potential power forward starter would have been unlikely a year ago when he weighed in at 260 pounds during the preseason and looked every bit like a center. But after a strong finish to his freshman season, Tillman underwent an offseason transformation that has made him lighter and more agile.
Izzo said both Tillman and Nick Ward figure to be more versatile players this year on offense and defense after dropping weight during the summer.
"Nick and Xavier have lost more and more weight," Izzo said. "I look at Nick out there and he looks skinny to me, but that's a good thing I think because he hasn't lost any strength."
The closest player on the roster to Jackson, in terms of size and skill wise, is incoming freshman Marcus Bingham Jr. At 6-foot-11, 235 pounds, Bingham showed the ability in high school to block shots and hit 3-pointers on the offensive end.
Izzo said Michigan State has had a freshman or two that have "impressed us," and noted that Bingham is among those that he wants to see add weight, along with fellow forward Gabe Brown, another potential power forward. And he said the freshman that has been most impressive is Aaron Henry, who showed up with a college-ready body at 6-foot-6, 218 pounds.
Izzo also called junior Kyle Ahrens the "lost guy" in terms of public perception after sitting out a year with an injury. At 6-foot-6, 210 pounds, Ahrens is among the smallest of the power forward candidates, but Izzo said his athleticism and shooting ability have impressed.
"We've always loved his athletic ability," Izzo said. "He's got the highest vertical on the team. He's finally healthy and he's shooting the ball like he always did."
Add them all together, and there's no shortage of options to replace a unicorn. And while the Spartans will have to pick one of them to put on the court to start its season-opener on Nov. 6, expect to see plenty of players cycle in and out of the spot to give Michigan State a variety of different looks.
"We can go small, we can go big, we can go in between, and I think we'll use all of those at one point in time," Izzo said.
This article is written by Kyle Austin from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.