Forecasting Michigan State in the Final Four is a safe guess.
Since taking over the program in 1995, Tom Izzo has been to six of them. He won it all in 2000, and if not for facing North Carolina’s "Team of Destiny" in 2009, he would have a pair of championship victories.
In 2012, the Spartans had to rebound without star Draymond Green. Adreian Payne took on a bigger role and helped lead the team to the Sweet 16.
This year, though, a simple trot to the Sweet 16 won’t be sufficient. The lofty goals set for the 2013-14 season are much more than a national semis appearance, too.
Sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris told NBEBasketball.com the following about his expectations:
I’m shooting high. I know our team’s goals are high. We feel like we want to win a national championship and we don’t want anything less than that. I mean, Final Four, that’s great, but we want to win it. I feel like if everybody comes with the right attitude each day in the off-season and regular season that’s a realistic goal.
Are the Spartans really in a position to do better than they did a year ago? Without Derrick Nix, they’re missing size in the middle. At 6’9” and usually around 270 pounds, Nix provided toughness in the paint that must be replaced by, among others, Matt Costello, a 6’9”, 240-pound sophomore center.
Nix provided the veteran feel with the seasoned grit necessary to navigate through the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. He muscled his way through the paint, stood up to the elite bigs—Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Duke’s Mason Plumlee—on a regular basis and set the tone for a team needing a senior’s guidance.
But this year could be better. Much better. Here's what to look for from the Spartans in 2013-14.
Rebounding and pestering opponents around the basket has long been a trademark of Izzo-ball. It’s no coincidence that his Spartans are always among the best rebounders in the country. He trains them to be great on the glass and on defense.
Gavin Schilling, a 3-star freshman, isn’t Nix. At 6’9” and 240 pounds, Schilling’s finesse game is opposite of the former bulldozer from Detroit’s method of playing. Schilling will likely get some of the 25-plus minutes left behind by Nix. Although just a frosh, Schilling has impressed Izzo.
According to MLive.com’s Diamond Leung, Izzo told Spartan Nation Radio, a popular show hosted by Hondo Carpenter, that Schilling’s presence will be felt immediately.
Gavin Schilling I think can help us immediately. He's 6-foot-9, he's tougher than nails, he's athletic, he rebounds, he's very smart. His father was an Olympic team handball player. He comes from good stock, and I think he's going to be a great addition
The 2013 class may not pack a ton of star power, but it can deliver a heavy hit if Schilling turns out to be the athlete Izzo says he can become.
A Star Is Born
As one of the nation’s top players to watch, sophomore guard Gary Harris’ reputation as a sharpshooter precedes him. As a freshman, he averaged 12.9 points per game, second to Keith Appling’s 13.4 average tilt.
Look back to former greats like Goran Suton, Kalin Lucas, Drew Neitzel and Draymond Green—none of them had the type of preseason hype that Harris enjoys at the moment. Harris is truly elite—no longer just a local favorite.
With another year of experience on his resume, Harris is expected to carry the weight for the Spartans, who are ranked No. 3 by ESPN.
Last Year of Payne
Typically, seniors give their best to Izzo. Green did it, Neitzel did it and Mateen Cleaves most certainly did it. Payne has the task of carrying on one of the proudest streaks in all of sports: Each of Izzo’s four-year players have been to at least one Final Four.
Payne (and fellow senior Appling) hasn’t been to the Promised Land yet.
This is it for the 6’10” former 5-star prospect. Leaving a personal legacy is one thing, but continuing a program tradition could be his most important offering to Izzo.
As a Big Ten player of the year candidate, Payne shoulders the load for a team looking to show that it’s much better than a Sweet 16 appearance. Other than losing Nix, the Spartans return a couple of new parts to the same nucleus of this past season.
Early Tests, Early Results
Izzo has Kentucky, Georgetown, North Carolina and Texas—again—on his non-conference schedule. From tournament duels to Super Bowl weekend games against the Hoyas, the Spartans aren’t afraid to battle juggernauts before March.
That onslaught can be compared to past schedules. Why beat around the bush? If Izzo wants to be the best, he has to play the best—and he does that.
It would appear that the Spartans are in a prime position to not only win the Big Ten but make a serious run at a national championship—something they fell short of in 2012-13.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81