Michigan State Basketball: 5 Burning Questions for Spartans' Offseason
The obvious question facing the Michigan State Spartans is this: How far will they go in March?
While there are certainly droves of other factors that will play into Tom Izzo's methodology in 2013-14, the focus is always on The Big Dance—and shuffling along long enough to see the Final Four.
Without Derrick Nix, the Spartans are in need of another tough guy.
Sophomore Gary Harris was an absolute gem during his first year in the Big Ten. He could blossom into a national-level star, so tracking his progress during the offseason is a must.
Adreian Payne will get consideration for player of the year honors if he exceeds what he did as a junior for Izzo this past season.
This slideshow will touch on those issues, among others, as it addresses five of the biggest questions as Michigan State prepares for next season.
Will This Offseason Be Russell Byrd's Crossroads?
By most accounts, Russell Byrd is a genuinely nice guy who's rolled with the punches during his trek with the Spartans.
In 2010-11, Byrd joined Izzo's program.
As a sharpshooter with the most pinpoint of pinpoint accuracy at Blackhawk Christian (Fort Wayne, Ind.), Byrd hit a wall when he arrived in East Lansing—and he hasn't quite recovered since.
For some reason, the now redshirt junior couldn't miss in practice, but he couldn't hit in a game. Izzo gave him chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity, for redemption. Byrd wasn't going to be abandoned by Izzo—no, not yet.
The Spartans coach feels about the same (at least as of April, according to ESPN) as he did when he recruited the 3-star prep small forward nearly four years ago. Byrd will get going.
Give. Byrd. More. Time.
Izzo said the following about Byrd's upcoming summer, according to MLive.com's Diamond Leung (via ESPN).
I guess it doesn't bother me if anybody believes in him, but give him a chance because this will be the first true summer where he is going to be 99 percent healthy. There's no question that kid can still help us because we need a shooter.
He lives, eats and sleeps the game, and then I have to listen to him talking to me about Twitter and how people are just ripping him on this and that -- people who have no clue and no understanding. Am I disappointed in Russell Byrd? Two hundred percent. I'm disappointed because I had a guy who was a gym rat, who loves the game, who is a good kid and was dealt a bad set of cards.
After foot surgeries and setbacks, Byrd averaged less than one basket in eight minutes per game in 2012-13. He was the No. 21 small forward of 2010 (Rivals) and ranked No. 115 on Rivals.com's top 150 chart. This is the summer, without any sliver of a doubt, for Byrd to really shake off the cobwebs and live up to his potential.
Byrd is loosely reminiscent of former Flint Powers Catholic star center Tom Herzog, a 7-footer who set MHSAA records in blocks and owned the court as a prepster. However, the 4-star recruit (2006) didn't flourish in the Big Ten, despite his celebrated work ethic.
Like Byrd, Herzog was a fan favorite just because of his willingness to battle criticism with a smile on his face. Herzog graduated from Michigan State in 2010 and transferred to Central Florida, where he saw an abundance of playing time and personal success.
Now, Byrd's situation is different in terms of years left of eligibility. But it parallels the overall feeling Izzo, the team and the fans had for Herzog.
Maybe you don't follow Spartans basketball that closely (but chances are pretty good that you do if you're reading this). But if you have a soft spot for the world of collegiate sports in general, you have to admire Byrd's grit and ability to grow a thick skin to shield him from harsh words from one of the most passionate college hoops fanbases in the land.
Will the Spartans Live Up to Hype?
This has been mentioned before, but it's worth repeating: Dick Vitale thinks the Spartans are in for a banner year. CBS Sports has Michigan State ranked as the No. 2 team in the country heading into the upcoming season.
That might be a bit much to handle at this time, even for the Spartans—they're without Derrick Nix and have to iron out flaws from 2012-13 before beginning to even think of a national title in 2014.
First and foremost, the Spartans are always considered a team to beat. Being No. 2 right now means nothing. However, the expectations are a little higher considering the fact that Izzo hasn't fought his way out of the Sweet 16 since 2010, the year he lost to Butler in the Final Four.
It'll be interesting to see how much the media at-large brings up the lofty, way-too-soon ranking pedestal that Izzo's Spartans have been placed on by other major media heavies like CBS and Vitale.
Looking for Something from Keith Appling
Keith Appling hasn't yet developed the type of take-charge attitude that past Spartans great Kalin Lucas had for the first three years of his career.
Appling, though, has one more chance to prove he's truly the captain of the ship. He's been christened so by the public, and it's time for him to use his status as a senior, along with Adreian Payne, to motivate his teammates.
Draymond Green was an exemplary senior. Drew Neitzel, Goran Suton, Mateen Cleaves and Travis Walton—Izzo has had real-deal veterans who set the tone with authority.
Appling can edge his way closer to that territory if he displays a clear command of everything around him in 2013-14. At times, he's been the best player on the floor. At other times, he's appeared too inconsistent to really be a true game-breaking star.
Emotionally speaking, there is no reason to question Appling's chops. He gives his all, but sometimes his all falls short, though. The gleaming deficiency in his leadership skill isn't effort, it's the way he vocally commands his teammates—he's not overly vocal, but he's getting there.
Will Alex Gauna and Matt Costello Be Enough?
Michigan State gains depth at forward with the arrival of 2013 3-star recruit Gavin Schilling and the return of 2012 3-star recruit Kenny Kaminski.
But Alex Gauna and Matt Costello have to be 1-2 combo to carry the frontcourt, with the exception of Adreian Payne that is.
Gauna and Costello are both about 6'9" and 245 pounds. Both decent in the paint, they'll have to bolster their muscling techniques to compensate for the loss of Derrick Nix. Costello was far from timid during the NCAA tournament; he really improved his approach.
Gauna showed a little flash of something that looked a lot like what most expected of him upon his addition to Michigan State in 2010 (3-star forward per Rivals). He was aggressive around the rim and not afraid to delve into his offensive tool box while pounding the paint.
If he and Costello get hot, Michigan State will have all the more reason to anticipate a mad March. Having versatile and bully-like forwards worked well for many teams that strung together nice runs in the 2013 dance.
In case you haven't heard by now, the Spartans didn't get Chicago Simeon prodigy Jabari Parker.
Matter of fact, there are only incoming players this year, one of which wasn't originally recruited by Izzo: Gavin Schilling, a 3-star forward, and 3-star guard Alvin Ellis, formerly of Minnesota.
Now, the focus this offseason shouldn't be about what Michigan State didn't get for this year. No, it should be firmly planted on the 2014 class' possibilities.
Izzo has offers to Cliff Alexander, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones—each 5-star rated and among the top 15 best of their class.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81