Michigan State Basketball: 10 Things Bothering Tom Izzo Most This Offseason
The addition of a highly-regarded recruiting class to the defending Big Ten champs would seem to be a recipe for success at Michigan State, but not everything in East Lansing is rosy. The Big Ten is going to be a beast of a conference next year, and State has some important questions to answer if it's going to defend their regular-season or tournament titles—not to mention improve on last year’s Sweet 16 finish in March.
The biggest issue, of course, will be adjusting to the loss of NBA-bound Draymond Green, especially because probable replacement Derrick Nix is a bit of an enigma at this point. The rising senior seemed to have turned his career around in 2011-12 before an offseason arrest cast a shadow over his chances of becoming a leader for the Spartans.
Herein, a look at Nix’s situation and nine other issues that will cost coach Tom Izzo some sleep heading into the 2012-13 season.
10. How Quickly Will MSU Get on Track at the Start of the Season?
The Spartans schedule hasn’t been released yet, but it’s hardly a stretch to expect Tom Izzo to stick to his usual pattern.
That means State will be facing one of the toughest non-conference slates of any team in the nation while trying to learn to play without All-American Draymond Green.
Last year’s marquee games against UNC and Duke didn’t go so well, but after falling to those two Goliaths the Spartans didn’t lose again until their fifth conference game two months later.
Michigan State can’t afford to take much longer than that to find its footing next season—considering how tough the conference schedule is sure to be, too many early losses could put a real dent in the team’s tournament seeding.
9. Will Any of the Rising Sophomores Step Up?
Izzo brought in a gargantuan freshman class a year ago, but of the seven first-year players on the 2011-12 roster, few made much of a contribution.
Branden Dawson quietly earned a starting spot as a swingman along with Keith Appling and Brandon Wood, but even he didn’t exactly look like the second coming of Morris Peterson (8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game).
It’s a truism that the biggest leap in a player’s development comes prior to his sophomore season, and sometimes it’s big enough to turn a non-factor into a star (like Illinois’ Meyers Leonard last year).
Whether it’s Dawson, Travis Trice or one of the less-heralded players, seeing one of the rising sophomores take over a major role on the team would make Izzo’s job a lot easier in 2012-13.
8. Just How Good Are the Post-Sullinger Buckeyes?
Of all the likely Big Ten contenders for 2012-13, none has more mystery around it than Ohio State.
The Buckeyes don’t have any freshmen expected to make an impact, but they could go from good—which is the worst-case scenario for a team building around Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft—to great, provided that a couple of their returning players get over the hump.
Rising junior Lenzelle Smith Jr. got very few shot opportunities in his first year as a starter, but the 6’4” guard has the potential to step into the scoring void left by Jared Sullinger and William Buford.
On the other end of the floor, rising sophomore Amir Williams is a former McDonald’s All-American who’s shown flashes of devastating shot-blocking ability in very limited minutes so far.
7. How Much Will the Rest of the Incoming Freshmen Produce?
There’s no real doubt that Gary Harris is going to be one of the most valuable players on the roster next season. Harris, though, isn’t the only noteworthy player in a class that’s ranked as high as eighth in the nation (by ESPNU).
Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski are promising talents, but Izzo is notoriously hard on his post players, so it’s not going to be easy for either of them to earn substantial playing time.
If Harris turns out to be the only major factor as a freshman, the Spartans are in for a tense season, but if he gets some help from his classmates, life will be much easier in East Lansing.
6. Which Upperclassmen Will Step Up as Leaders?
The 2012-13 Spartans are going to be an extremely young team, especially by Izzo’s standards. The roster will have only one senior, Derrick Nix, and his track record suggests that much of the leadership burden may fall on a solid group of rising juniors.
The obvious choice is Keith Appling, who will be running the offense again after a strong sophomore year (11.4 points, 3.9 assists per game), but Appling has to prove that he can fill a leader's role.
If he falters, don’t be surprised to see him get some help from steady center (and classmate) Adreian Payne.
5. Do Michigan’s Freshmen Make the Wolverines the Favorites Against State?
As good a backcourt as Keith Appling and Gary Harris are going to be, it’s hard to say they’ll be definitively better than their opposite numbers in maize and blue: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., a duo that combined for 29.4 points per game for last year’s Big Ten co-champs.
If Michigan State is going to top its biggest rivals head-to-head, then the frontcourt will have to carry a large share of the load.
That won’t be easy against a Michigan recruiting class that includes two of the most dangerous freshman forwards in the country, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III.
The Spartans are unlikely to have any scorers who can trade baskets with either incoming Wolverine, so Izzo had better have them ready to lock down defensively if they hope to come out on top in a very dangerous matchup.
4. How Well Will Gary Harris Hold Up in the Clutch?
The prize of Tom Izzo’s 2012 recruiting class is Gary Harris, last year's Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana.
The 6’4” shooting guard is rated as high as 11th in the nation (by ESPNU), and he’s shown the ability to score at the rim, the three-point line and everywhere in between.
As talented as Harris is, though, he’s still a freshman, and he’s going to be thrown into an incredibly tough—and always physical—Big Ten conference.
At some point, the Spartans are going to have the game on the line and need Harris to make a shot, and neither Izzo nor anyone else can be sure how the freshman will respond until it happens.
3. Can Anybody Match Up with the Indiana Frontcourt?
Indiana is getting a fair amount of preseason national title buzz, primarily because of a towering frontcourt that will feature 6’11” sophomore Cody Zeller and 6’9” senior Christian Watford.
The Hoosiers have other weapons, but dealing with all that length will be task No. 1 for any IU opponent next year.
The Spartans’ frontcourt is a physical group as usual, but none of Izzo’s troops has anything like the skill to counterbalance Zeller and Watford.
Just as importantly, if MSU does lose head-to-head against the Hoosiers, they’re unlikely to get much help making up ground in the conference race, because no one else in the Big Ten (indeed, in the country) will have an easy time taking down Tom Crean’s squad.
2. How Will Derrick Nix Respond to Off-Court Problems?
After two seasons with more time spent battling weight problems than playing basketball, Derrick Nix looked encouraging in a reserve role last year.
The 6’9”, 270-lb Nix posted solid averages of 8.1 points and 3.8 rebounds a night behind Draymond Green, but now he has a very different obstacle to overcome.
Nix will be performing community service after an April arrest for impaired driving, meaning that the Spartans’ lone senior isn’t exactly the optimal role model for the team’s younger players.
Izzo has reinstated Nix to the team, but whether the offseason distractions will keep him from playing up to his potential has to be a concern for both the center and his coach.
1. Will the Spartans Get Enough Scoring from the Frontcourt?
All-American Draymond Green scored 16.2 points per game last season—which was exactly twice as many as any other MSU forward averaged.
With Green off to the NBA, Michigan State needs more points from its big men than just what they can get off putbacks and Keith Appling assists.
Izzo’s best bet in that department may be freshman Matt Costello, a dangerous face-up shooter, but at just 210 lbs he may not have the physicality to play major minutes in his first season.
If he doesn’t, Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix or someone else will need to step up as a scoring threat to keep the Spartan offense competitive against the nation's best.