2013-14 Michigan State basketball: NCAA title or bust (basically)

Senior PF Adreian Payne (left) and sophomore SG Gary Harris are key to the Spartans' success in 2013-14.  Rick Osentoski -- USA Today

Senior PF Adreian Payne (left) and sophomore SG Gary Harris are key to the Spartans’ success in 2013-14. Rick Osentoski — USA Today

The last time we saw the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball team was in the Sweet 16, in Indianapolis, IN. After demolishing Memphis in the third round of the tournament, it appeared they had the “momentum” necessary to carry it past its next opponent, the Duke University Blue Devils. Unfortunately, momentum doesn’t score or defend, and former Blue Devil Seth Curry torched the Spartans for 29 points on 6-9 shooting from deep as Duke eliminated Sparty from the 2013 tournament, 71-61.

Former Spartan center Derrick Nix struggled rather badly in that game, and the same goes for senior power forward Adreian Payne. The two combined for 23 points and 19 rebounds, but hit on only 6-20 from the field. Payne, an improved three-point shooter in 2012-13, went 1-5 from long-range against Duke. Branden Dawson, perhaps still not quite comfortable in his return from a torn ACL the season before, was mostly quiet. Curry was able to score easily while being defended mostly by then-freshman shooting guard Gary Harris, usually a very good defender. However, Harris had been dealing with a bum shoulder for much of the season, and played poorly on both ends, scoring only six points on 2-11 shooting from the field. Team leader and starting point guard Keith Appling scored a very effective 16 points, but committed zero assists against four turnovers. If it weren’t for some much-needed energy from reserves (PG) Travis Trice and (G/F) Denzel Valentine, MSU could have very well lost by more than ten points.

Departing: C Derrick Nix (graduation)

That’s it. Only one player will be missing from a team that finished with an overall record of 27-9, and 13-5 in conference play in 2012-13. However, the squad lost one of my favorite Spartans in recent memory, as well as a 6-9, 270-lb load who only improved each year during his four seasons as a Spartan. The big man, who my girlfriend would so often affectionately refer to as “Chonky Wonky,” finished 2012-13 averaging nearly 10 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and just over a steal per game. Head coach Tom Izzo realized that while it wasn’t always pretty, the duo of Payne and Nix was mostly effective, as Nix’s ability to operate from the low post combined with Payne’s range allowed the Spartans’ perimeter players to be even more dangerous with or without the ball in their hands.

Arriving: PF/C Gavin Schilling (incoming freshman), G/F Alvin Ellis III (incoming freshman), F Kenny Kaminski (redshirt)

Gary Harris was a top-10 recruit and arguably the nation’s best high school shooting guard when he signed his letter of intent with the Spartans. Besides Harris and a few others, Izzo doesn’t have a great history of signing large-profile prep basketball players. He’s generally in the mix for most, as I believe that most preps, regardless of status, like Izzo as a coach. But when it comes time to make a decision, Sparty usually is the bridesmaid while the more attractive Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and sometimes even Indiana, are the bride. This was the case with Duke freshman small forward Jabari Parker, a Chicago prep star from Simeon Vocational Academy. It appeared that when Parker’s buzz was biggest, he was headed to East Lansing. He suffered a foot injury and missed out on summer ball in 2012 while Kansas freshman small forward Andrew Wiggins wrecked it (and reclassified to the class of 2013 from 2014) and overtook the throne of “Latest prep to be prematurely compared to LeBron James.” Then, with seemingly all of the buzz surrounding Wiggins, Parker picked Duke as his resting stop for the next 6-7 months.

So, in typical Izzo fashion, he scrambled and came away with two solid recruits, Schilling and Ellis III. Ellis III is a smooth athlete and likely to play a role between those of Harris and Dawson, but we won’t be seeing much of him this season because of MSU’s depth in their backcourt and on the wings. The German-born Schilling is a three-star prep out of Las Vegas who was late to the recruiting scene. At 6’9″ and weighing 240 pounds, Schilling is the type of low-post banger that Izzo likes, but much more athletic than say, former Spartan Antonio Smith. Kaminski is a 6-8 shooter who was expected to contribute last year, but tore his right labrum in an offseason workout and was given a medical redshirt. He has lost weight and told the media that he has worked on his shot incessantly. If the improvement shows in games, Kaminski will be able to easily play the stretch 4 for the Spartans when Izzo runs out a smaller lineup.

Projected Starters: PG Keith Appling, SG Gary Harris, SF Branden Dawson, PF Adreian Payne, C Matt Costello

Appling and Harris (when the latter is healthy) form arguably the country’s best starting backcourt, and Sparty goes as they go, for the most part. Appling is a senior and will more than likely be an improved player this season, but I doubt we’re going to see the kind of Cleaves-, Lucas- or Green-like leadership from him that Izzo wants. Harris was overlooked during a very good freshman season, but should be “100%” and ready to cement his status as one of the nation’s best two-way players, and possible NBA Draft lottery pick. Dawson was great as a freshman before tearing his ACL, and looked tentative at times during his sophomore campaign. Hopefully, with an increased role and more comfort in his knee’s ability, he’ll return to being a virtually unstoppable force around the glass, especially on the offensive end. Payne surprised many, including myself, by returning to East Lansing for his senior season. The 2013 draft class was not a strong one and Payne was coming off of a season in which he was one of the best big men in what was widely regarded as the best conference in the land. However, Payne wanted another shot at a NCAA title and to also fulfill a promise to his late grandmother that he would graduate from college. Per 36 minutes, Payne averaged 15 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 2012-13 while shooting well over 50% from the field and close to 40% from 3. Oh, he also shot 85% from the free throw line and increased his scoring average each month, from November through March. Payne may not hit those averages, but he’ll come close in 2013-14. Costello is a 6-9, 240-lb sophomore forward who scored a grand total of 44 points last season, and now he’ll (at least early) be counted on to do most of the replacing of the departed Nix. He was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball for 2012, but was barely a role player for last year’s Spartans. Starting alongside four players who are more offensively capable than him should make it easy for Costello to focus on playing good defense and rebounding well, as he’s still not someone you would count on to get you buckets at any critical stretch of a game.

Guard Travis Trice, left, and guard/forward Denzel Valentine lead MSU's reserves.

Guard Travis Trice, left, and guard/forward Denzel Valentine lead MSU’s reserves.

Reserves: Travis Trice, G/F Denzel Valentine, Schilling, Ellis III, PF/C Alex Guana, G Keenan Wetzel, Kaminski, G Russell Byrd, PF/C Emmett Dacey, G Dan Chapman, F Trevor Bohnhoff

It’s a luxury in sports to have depth, especially at positions most integral to the team’s success. So when Appling and Harris come off the floor, coming on to replace them most times are the very competent Trice and Valentine. I don’t believe MSU would enjoy the same success with Trice and Valentine starting in place of Appling and Harris, but up against other teams’ second units, I like Sparty’s chances with Trice and Valentine in the backcourt. Trice, a junior, is great in transition and should be happy that Izzo plans to run a little bit more this season, where Trice can either push the tempo or pull up for a transition 3. After somehow finishing 2012-13 shooting 32% from the field, but 40% from 3, Trice will have to improve his overall shooting as well as a less-than-stellar 1.47/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, in 13-14. In his freshman season, Valentine proved himself to be the Spartans’ most versatile player. Valentine can effectively play positions 1-4 on both ends, and if forced to, could probably be a serviceable center in some situations. His per 36 numbers in 12-13 (8.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.2 apg) don’t even point out the energy he brings to play, almost immediately. To compare, Valentine is college basketball’s Andre Iguodala. Expect Schilling to at the least be a rotation player, averaging between 10-15 minutes per game. If he brings the physicality he’s showed in practice and exhibition to regular season games, he could play a role that Dawson played as a freshman, just in the low post. Appling and Harris are excellent at penetrating to the rim, but as anyone who’s watched basketball knows, not every venture to the rim ends with a made basket, or even a shot attempt. Kaminski and Byrd will have to provide above-average long-range shooting to keep opposing defenses honest. This would not only enable Appling, Harris, Trice and Valentine to drive the lane more frequently and easily, but give Payne the room he needs to operate on the low block. Guana was a bit player last season, and Dacey’s role was lesser than that. If they’re on the floor, Sparty is either ahead or behind by 30 late, or half the team can’t play because of injury. Ellis III could end up redshirting in 13-14. Wetzel, Chapman and Bohnhoff probably look good in practice, but practice aren’t games and vice versa.

Non-conference schedule: (H) McNeese St, (N) Kentucky, (H) Columbia, (H) Portland, (N) Virginia Tech, (H) Mount St. Mary’s, (H) North Carolina, (A) Oakland, (H) North Florida, (A) Texas, (H) New Orleans

Sparty played the toughest schedule, if not one of the toughest, in 2012-13. They started by losing to UConn in an air base hangar in German and beat a top-10 Kansas team in a neutral location just four days later. A week later, MSU held on at home to beat a good Boise St. team and just eight days after that, lost on the road to a Miami team that would go on to win the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles. Less than two weeks after the Canes took it to Sparty, a markedly improved Loyola team gave them problems at the Breslin. Non-conference play concluded two weeks later, as MSU beat a down (but still talented) Texas team at home by 11.

A quick glance at the the non-conference schedule for 13-14 and it’s easy to see that once again, Sparty has a tough lineup ahead. Kentucky is preseason number one in every poll imaginable, and have hauled in what many college basketball analysts are saying is the greatest freshman class in college basketball history, even better than Michigan’s “Fab Five.” Virginia Tech was awful last year, but should be marginally improved, at least. A nationally televised home game against North Carolina will be one the “Izzone” gets amped for. Oakland was beaten by Sparty by 18 last year, but the score wasn’t indicative of what actually happened. Sparty will travel to Oakland this year and be the fourth ranked opponent to face the Grizzlies in the first six weeks of 13-14. Basketball-wise (and hell, football-wise, too), Texas just isn’t very good right now, but they should still finish ahead of West Virginia, Texas Tech and TCU in the Big 12. And after a late-January road game against pesky Iowa, MSU will travel to New York City, where they will play Georgetown at Madison Square Garden.

Conference Schedule(A/H) Penn St., (A/H) Indiana, (H/A) Ohio St., (H) Minnesota, (A/H) Northwestern, (A/H) Illinois, (H/A) Michigan, (A/H) Iowa

There are no surprises here, and you can be sure that there will be no nights off for the Spartans, even against Penn St. There is no Wisconsin on the schedule this year, which is both good and bad. Sparty swept the two games the teams played against each other last year, but those games always take a lot out of the Badgers’ opposition. I’m not a fan of MSU ending the regular season against Ohio St., but as long as it’s to put the finishing touches on a Big 10 regular season title, all will be well.

The Outlook.

Disregarding most Big 10 predictions that Michigan State will win the conference is easy when you already believed they are an extremely talented basketball team. It was great to see Nix finally become a consistent, productive player, but this team could be even more potent in 13-14, offensively. Whereas a part of the offense was always going to rely on halfcourt sets with Nix on the floor, his absence (and a smaller, more athletic frontcourt in turn) will give Izzo’s squad multiple chances, with Appling and Harris as primary ballhandlers, to score baskets in transition or simply create mismatches when possessing the ball. The Big 10 isn’t as bogged down as some would like you to believe, but it’s nowhere near a run-n-gun conference, either, so any easy baskets will be of an even larger importance in a conference in which points come at a premium. The game against Kentucky will be the largest regular season game in school history, and will be played at the United Center. The nonconference schedule isn’t as strong as last year’s, but will still prepare the team for conference play. And while the Big 10 isn’t as top-heavy as it was last year, it’s arguably deeper this year, with expected improvements from Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Penn St. as well.

MSU has just as good of a chance as any other school to win the NCAA title. The starting five is better than most, and the reserve unit is versatile and hard-working. Sparty isn’t perfect, though, of course. The Spartans will have to cut down on the turnovers; they ranked 305th in the country in that category last season. Shooting the three is another area that the Spartans must improve in, and the thinking is that a healthier Harris, along with Byrd, Kaminski and even Appling, will vault MSU from a barely mediocre team when shooting the long ball to an above-average one. It wouldn’t hurt Izzo to inject a bit more fluidity into the offense, making sure the ball is constantly moving, especially with Payne’s ability to play in the high post. And while the Spartans don’t aim to score 85 points per game, not even averaging 70, coupled with an inability to hit the three, can and probably will prove very damaging if they have to go up against a team with a high-octane offense in the tournament.

This should be a very, very, very good year for the Spartans. With four of 2012-13’s five starters returning, along with Trice and Valentine to lead a good bench, Izzo could potentially have his deepest team yet. Harris will most likely continue his ascension and be a lottery pick in next year’s draft, and the same could go for Payne. Appling is playing for his NBA life this season, and knows it. I’ll love this team even more if Dawson reverts to 2011-12 form and Costello holds it down more times than not in the middle. The Spartans should be a clear-cut favorite to win the Big 10, as key contenders lost much more from last year’s teams than MSU did. In terms of a national perspective, there are indeed teams who may have more talent, but a group of skilled individuals don’t always beat skilled teams. Kentucky learned this last year.

Michigan State begins the 2013-14 regular season tonight against the Southland Conference’s McNeese St. Cowboys, in East Lansing, MI. McNeese St. was a sub-.500 team in 12-13 and will try to overcome Sparty before going for Southland gold against the likes of Abilene Christian, Nicholls St., Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word. I guarantee that despite the caliber of their opponent tonight, Izzo won’t let his guys take the Cowboys lightly. This is especially an important game because the next one for MSU will be against Kentucky. MSU will put on a show tonight in preparation for their showdown on Tuesday night, which I will be in attendance for. Go Green. Go White.

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