In Tom Izzo, I trust.
In Tom Izzo with a squad that returns three starters and one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, I really, really trust.
As the Michigan State Spartans entered the 2011-12 season, they were unranked and off the national radar. Yet, somehow, Izzo still found a way to carry his team all the way to a No. 5 ranking in the AP and a Sweet 16 appearance.
Now, even with Draymond Green spending his time in Golden State with the Warriors, the veteran head coach has even more weapons at his disposal. He returns most of his starters. He has depth on the bench. He has the luxury of putting Garry Harris, one of the most talented freshman in the nation, in his starting lineup every night. He has size in the frontcourt
The Spartans are ranked No. 14, and if Izzo does with this team what he did with last year's less-talented squad, you can bet he'll be cutting down some nylon at some point in March.
Let's take a closer look at what's in store for Michigan State in 2012-13.
PF Matt Costello (Freshman)
SG Gary Harris (Freshman)
SF Denzel Valentine (Freshman)
It may seem crazy considering the amount of success that Tom Izzo usually achieves in Lansing, but this is Michigan State's highest ranked class since at least 2006.
That's a testament to just how good Izzo is at getting the most out of his players, and now that he has guys like Gary Harris to teach, the Spartans are going to be scary.
Harris, the 11th-ranked player in the class and darkhorse for Freshman Player of the Year, is a special talent. At 6'4", 205 pounds, he has the size and strength of an NBA shooting guard. He's relentless to the rack, and nearly unstoppable to slow down when he gets a head of steam. He's athletic. He'll put a few unlucky defenders on posters. His jump shot needs a little bit of work, but that's a minor blip on what is otherwise an impressive physical specimen.
While Harris will instantly become a go-to player for this squad, the others, for now, will simply provide depth as role players.
Denzel Valentine, in addition to having one of the best—and not to mention Michigan State sounding—names in the country, is a hard-worker who can fill the box score. He's not an elite scorer, but he'll find a way to help out wherever necessary. Take his high school numbers as evidence: 15.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 9.0 apg, 5.0 spg.
Remind you of any certain guys named Draymond?
Matt Costello, meanwhile, is more of a classic post player. He'll do most of his work down low, but he can also hit the short, mid-range jumper.
G Brandon Wood (Graduated): 8.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.6 spg, 26.9 mpg
G Austin Thornton (Graduated): 5.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.1 apg, 0.6 spg, .477 3P%, 21.8 mpg
F Draymond Green (Graduated/Draft): 16.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.9 bpg, 33.2 mpg
Draymond Green is irreplaceable. Let's just get that out of the way now. Michigan State will eventually get over the departure of its senior, but it will take the seven or 12 or however many steps of grief, first.
On paper, he's irreplaceable. A typical stat line of a double-double, almost four assists, a steal, a block and a three-pointer made on efficient percentages just doesn't come along all too often. He did absolutely everything there was to be done on the court, even mop the floor. He filled the box score like it was a Twinkie.
Intangibles-wise, he's irreplaceable. He was the senior leader. He kept everyone in check, brought energy and passion night in and night out and single-handedly led the Spartans to several wins.
And after all that, I'm fairly certain I understated his worth.
Wood and Thornton were senior role players. They hit threes (although Thornton hit them at a better rate) and contributed solid minutes, but they didn't bring anything that Izzo can't replace.
This is as close to a lock as you'll find.
Gary Harris' talented is limitless, and even though he's a true freshman, Tom Izzo wouldn't dare keep him out of the starting lineup.
Branden Dawson is returning from a torn ACL, but his recovery has reportedly gone extremely well and he appears ready to return. Besides, his toughness and defense defines Michigan State basketball.
Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix are experienced big men who, together, give the Spartans a bruising duo down low. Alex Gauna has immense potential, but there's no way he unseats those two in the starting five.
The only question mark is at the point guard position.
Keith Appling became much more of a true floor general last season, as his assist percentage went up and his turnover percentage went down. But his shot regressed while Travis Trice would give the Spartans an outside threat they desperately need.
Still though, Trice is still recovering from a bacterial infection he got over the summer. Nonetheless, his ability to run the break and deadly outside range will make him a scary sixth man.
The bench minutes, however, aren't quite as locked down.
Brandan Kearney and Russell Byrd are intriguing sophomore options on the wing. Denzel Valentine brings intrigue as a top freshman. Alex Gauna should be the first big man off the bench, but Matt Costello is a big body that would be useful during physical Big Ten play.
Tom Izzo doesn't have a very proven bench, but he's got a lot of options, and that's all he really needs.
|Point Guard||Keith Appling||Travis Trice|
|Shooting Guard||Gary Harris||Russell Byrd/Brandan Kearney|
|Small Forward||Branden Dawson||Denzel Valentine|
|Power Forward||Adreian Payne||Alex Gauna|
|Center||Derrick Nix||Matt Costello
You mean besides the fact that head coach Tom Izzo is a freaking magician?
Izzo, as evidenced by his .709 (!) career win percentage with the Spartans, is one of the best coaches in college basketball.
No matter the personnel, he always creates a similar team atmosphere that involves hard-nosed defense, toughness and energy, and it always results in the same thing.
With Branden Dawson back on the wing, strength on the interior and the added athleticism from Gary Harris, there's no question that Izzo, once again, has one of the best defensive units in the nation at his disposal. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Spartans, who finished third in defensive efficiency last year, are projected third once again.
Ho-hum. Another year in Lansing, another elite defensive squad.
On the offensive end, the Spartans, who finished fourth in the Big Ten in possession per game last season, will once again rely on pushing the tempo.
The newcomer Harris will only excel in transition. As will Dawson, the prototypical slashing small forward who attempted just three treys last year. So will Travis Trice, who is very fast going north to south.
The Spartans not only have the toughness and strength to get into teams on the defensive end, but they once again will have some of the best athleticism and speed in the conference.
At some point, you need to knock down three-pointers, and I have no idea who is going to do that for Michigan State.
That is, besides Travis Trice. The sophomore knocked down just under one trey per contest last season at an impressive 40.5 percent clip.
But then things get ugly.
Point guard Keith Appling shot an anemic 25 percent on 2.6 attempts per contest last year. Harris will knock down his share of threes, but he isn't known for having a consistent outside shot. Dawson attempted just three long balls last year, one more than big man Adriean Payne.
Kearney, Byrd and Wetzel could provide some relief off the bench, but this team isn't going to kill a lot of zones.
Furthermore, the lack of experience on the bench is a little worrisome, especially come March.
Still though, Izzo is the type of coach who can make that problem disappear.
That sounds a lot more shady than it really is, don't worry.
Can Keith Appling Keep His Starting Role?
Thanks to Travis Trice's health problems over the summer, Appling figures to start the season at point guard.
Don't be surprised if he's on a short leash, though.
Last season, Appling's field goal percentage (.436 to .427), three-point field goal percentage (.411 to .250. Yikes!) and free-throw percentage (.895 to .788) all regressed.
If he can revert to his freshman shooting numbers, Appling, who turned himself into a very good distributor and protector of the ball last season, is in line for a huge year. If he doesn't, Trice will be nipping at his heels.
Development of the Big Boys
Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have the talent to be one of the best big-man duos in the nation. However, they've suffered from inconsistency and injuries throughout their careers.
Payne started almost every game last season but was only able to average 17.9 minutes per game. Nix, meanwhile, was suspended after the season due to an arrest stemming from marijuana possession.
Considering the combination of talent and experience from the junior and senior tandem, the potential here is, ahem, high. If they find a way to log 25 minutes per game and produce with consistency, Michigan State is going to be tough to beat.
It's a big "if," but the importance of Payne and Nix is undeniable.
Michigan State can make it to the Final Four.
Yes, the Spartans are "only" ranked 14th to start the season, and they lost do-everything forward Draymond Green, but the talent here is endless.
A lot will depend on Appling, Payne and Nix taking that next step as both leaders and producers on the court, but all that's needed are baby steps.
Throw in standout freshman Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, who was improving big time before last year's injury, and a bench riddled with backcourt depth, and this is a Spartan team that will be able to run a lot on offense and play hard, physical defense.
That's a team no one wants to play in March.
This Spartans team is built just how Tom Izzo likes it, and therefore, the floor is fairly high. An NCAA tournament appearance is a certainty, even if the Spartans have to go through a stacked Big Ten.
However, if Izzo's squad runs into a team that is disciplined on offense, thus limiting fast-break opportunities, and plays zone on defense, thus forcing the Spartans to shoot more from the outside than they'd like, an early-round upset is very possible.
26-7 (15-5 Big Ten), Third in Big Ten
To start the season, the Spartans take on Connecticut in Germany and then come home to play Kansas four days later. The Huskies aren't nearly as good this year, and Kansas has a few question marks, but good luck escaping that start undefeated.
The rest of the pre-Big Ten schedule isn't too tough for Izzo's squad. The Spartans travel to Florida to take on an underrated Miami squad and host Texas right before Christmas, but those are the only other real tests.
I think the Spartans enter conference play with two losses.
That's when things will get interesting.
The Big Ten is loaded this year, and while there's no matching Indiana's talent and Ohio State will undoubtedly be tough to beat again, I've got Michigan State finishing third in a competitive conference.
I would be a fool to expect anything less from Tom Izzo and an experienced, talented team.