This isn’t the same powerhouse team the Spartans had last year, but it could still be very good. Michigan State is No. 20 in our top 25 countdown.
Eventually, all great streaks are meant to come to an end. For Tom Izzo and Michigan State, one of the most mind-bending achievements in college sports was finally killed last season.
The Spartans came one game away from sending Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and company to the Final Four, something Izzo had done with every senior class in his first 19 years as head coach at Michigan State. UConn and Shabazz Napier had different ideas, upsetting the Spartans on their way to the national championship and ending the college careers of stalwarts Payne and Appling without the chance at the glory so many who came before them were able to achieve.
In a sense, the end of the streak is a time for appreciation more than grieving. The 59-year-old Izzo has taken Michigan State to six Final Fours over his career, an incredible accomplishment in any context. With the departure of his three best players from last year’s team — the two aforementioned seniors and sophomore guard Gary Harris, a first round NBA draft pick — this year’s team doesn’t project as one set to reboot the streak. Even still, it would be impossibly foolish to ever count out an Izzo squad, especially a group returning a few quality veterans and headlined by star forward Branden Dawson.
Dawson is a senior now, and his career up to this point has been marked by ups-and-downs. He been injured often, tearing his ACL in 2012 and missing time with a broken hand last year. When he’s on the court, he gives Izzo a versatile combo forward who is a monster on the offensive glass (posting the No. 68 offensive rebounding rate in the country last year, per KenPom) and a tireless worker when he has the ball in close. Dawson led a team that included two first round picks in offensive rating last season (per KenPom) and could be set for a huge final year in East Lansing if he can finally squash the injury bug.
A team that finished No. 12 in offensive efficiency last season (per KenPom) figures to take a step back without Harris’ driving ability and Payne’s stretch-five ability, but the defense (No. 28 in efficiency) can still be solid if the front court holds up. This Michigan State team might be lighter on depth than any team Izzo has had recently, but somehow he always finds a way to get unexpected contributions.
Yes, this is a rebuilding year for Michigan State. For a program that has been ranked in the top six of the AP Poll the last six seasons, rebuilding usually doesn’t last for long. Reinforcements are already on the way. Izzo has two top recruits coming in next season as freshmen — forward Deyonta Davis and shooter Matt McQuaid — as well as an impact transfer in former West Virginia guard Eron Harris. Until then, expect Michigan State to do what it always does even without a team that looks like a Final Four contender: defend, rebound and play smart. Even in a rebuilding year, the Spartans are a team no one will want to face.
(Credit: Brad Penner – USA Today Sports)
More on Michigan State: Michigan State is rebuilding, but trust Tom Izzo to figure it out
Projected starting lineup
PG Travis Trice, senior
SG Bryn Forbes, junior
SF Denzel Valentine, junior
PF Branden Dawson, senior
C Matt Costello, junior
Key bench players: PG Lourawls Nairn (freshman), F Gavin Schilling (sophomore), G Alvin Ellis (sophomore), G Javon Bess (freshman), F Marvin Clark (freshman)
How the Spartans can go far this season: Stay healthy and develop depth
The Spartans started last season out ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 depending on which poll you were looking at, but only headed to the tournament with a No. 4 seed attached to their name because of injuries. Appling and Dawson missed time, in particular, and this year’s team won’t have the depth to withstand blows like that to the roster.
If Dawson stays healthy, he has a good chance at finishing the year with All-American status. He’s only 6’6, but his toughness on the glass allows Izzo to play him at power forward and surround him with shooting. Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes was surprisingly ruled eligible for this season, and his shooting (42 percent from three on six attempts per game) will be enormous for a Michigan State team that needs as many talented players as it can get.
In the backcourt, Travis Trice finally gets his chance to run the show as a senior. He’s been a key reserve throughout his career, and now gets to show the ropes to Izzo’s best freshman, point guard Lourawls Nairn. Trice can really shoot the rock (over 40 percent in all three seasons in school). If you’re sensing a theme, that’s the strength of the offense.
Denzel Valentine projects as the second best player on the team in his junior season. He’s a playmaking wing with triple-double potential every time he steps on the court. Valentine can shoot, pass, handle the ball and rebound, making him an essential do-it-all wing for Izzo. He can be an All-Big Ten performer if everything goes according to plan.
Perhaps the key to the Izzo’s group of reserves is Gavin Schilling, a talented but raw prospect out of Chicago, by way of Germany. At 6’9, 240 pounds and with good athleticism, Schilling has the potential to break out this year. MSU needs him to.
How Michigan State could get sent home early: Lack of quality big men
This is where the inability to recruit in the front court while Payne was in school is going to show. Matt Costello is a big body at 6’9, 245 pounds, but he’s done little to establish himself in his first two years of school. Save for Schilling, who is unproven to this point, there’s nothing really behind him.
It’s going to be tough in conference play for Michigan State with such a thing front court. Wisconsin has Frank Kaminsky, Purdue has A.J. Hammons, Illinois has Nana Egwu, Iowa has Aaron White. Interior defense never seems to be a problem for Izzo teams, but it’s a fair quest this year until proven otherwise.
The Big Ten simply lost a lot of talent over the offseason, and much of it came from MSU. Wisconsin is the odds-on favorite in the conference, but after that it should be pretty wide open. The Spartans will compete with Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Illinois, and everyone else in a conference that looks bunched up before the season starts. Regardless of the apparent depth issues, it’s never a bad bet to trust Tom Izzo.