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Michigan State Basketball: Is Spartans' 2013-14 Backcourt Tom Izzo's Best Ever?

Denzel Valentine adds passing, shooting and dunking to MSU's roster.
Denzel Valentine adds passing, shooting and dunking to MSU's roster.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Adam BiggersSenior Analyst IIJanuary 3, 2017

Give Tom Izzo a decent stock of guards...then sit back and watch what happens. 

Headlined by Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, the 2008-09 Spartans guards were major contributors to a Final Four run and national title game appearance.

In 2005, it was Shannon Brown, Chris Hill and Alan Anderson who helped Izzo reach the fourth of his six national semis.

Five years earlier, it was Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell, leaders of the Flintstones, who started it all by giving Izzo his lone national championship (2000). 

This season, Izzo, a four-time national coach of the year, has Gary Harris, who is arguably the finest shooter in the game, and Keith Appling, an asset on defense and developing distributor, complementing a deep well that consists of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson and freshman scorer Alvin Ellis. 

The 2013-14 collection could be the finest of Izzo's 19 years as head coach.

That's high praise, considering that guards such as Travis Walton, Korie Lucious and Chris Allen made their way through the Breslin Center, carving out reputations as key starters and, in the case of Lucious, incredibly clutch shooters. 

Note: It would have been acceptable to simply throw a link over "clutch shooters," but not enough. Seeing the footage right here, right now is a must.

Lucious' buzzer-beating three-pointer against Maryland in the 2010 national tournament was one of the greatest shots in Spartans history. With any luck, Izzo may get something similar from Harris or Appling this season. 

 

Time for the Numbers

Comparing statistics is always one of the first steps when gauging potential. In 2012-13, Appling and Harris combined for about 26 points per game. This year, 30 per contest from the pair is attainable.

The following table illustrates point totals from Izzo's top guard tandems. 

Group Efforts
SeasonComboPPGMisc.Result
2012-13Appling/Harris26.3Appling led team with 13.4 PPGSweet 16 loss to Duke
2009-10Lucas/Summers26.1Lucas led team with 14.8 PPGFinal Four loss to Butler
2008-09Lucas/Summers23.3Lucas won B1G POTYTitle game loss to North Carolina
2004-05Ager/Anderson27.3Both played Dawson-like roles as G/FFinal Four loss to North Carolina
2004-05Brown/Hill19.72005 team was incredibly deep and versatile at guard
2002-03Anderson/Hill23.5Hill led team with 13.7 PPGElite 8 loss to Kentucky
2000-01Jason Richardson/Bell28.2Richardson led team with 14.7 PPGFinal Four loss to Arizona
1999-2000Cleaves/Bell23.6One of top guard tandems in MSU historyNational title win over Florida
ESPN (Cleaves: Basketball Reference, Bell: StatSheet)

As noted, Izzo had a lot to work with in 2004-05. Kelvin Torbert, a true shooting guard, averaged 9.4 points per game. He didn't even make the list. Hill averaged 8.8 points per outing.

Depth...wings...athleticism. That was the story of 2004-05. 

And Izzo has it again this season.

In 2012-13, Dawson, Trice and Valentine combined for 11.6 points per game. Far from a "wow" stat, sure. But with another year of experience, that trio could give as many as 20 points.

Dawson, a 6'6", 220-pound junior, has high-teen potential. He could lead the Spartans in scoring. 

Pair that with a possible 30 from Harris, a sophomore, and Appling, a senior, and that leaves little work for star power forward Adreian Payne, a senior who also shoots the three. 

Trice, a junior, and Valentine, a sophomore, are incredible bench pieces. They're solid defenders and great relievers for Appling. 

 

Confidence Is There

Gary Harris wasn't at his best defensively vs. Duke in the 2013 tourney, but he also fought injury.
Gary Harris wasn't at his best defensively vs. Duke in the 2013 tourney, but he also fought injury.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Final Four or bust? 

Well, yeah. 

But Harris wants more than that. As a matter of fact, his entire teams wants more than that.

Harris said the following about his hopes to reporters Tuesday (via the Detroit News' John Niyo).

Go big or go home. I just feel like those are our expectations. …

I mean, we have the talent and the tools. That should be the goal. That’s what we want to do. We want to win a national championship. And I feel like if we don’t reach that, we will have failed.

That's the same type of statement that Cleaves used to make way back when. 

Past greats typically say good things about their old coach and school. But when such praise comes from Cleaves, or, say Magic Johnson, people tend to listen. As the figureheads of Spartans basketball, Cleaves and Johnson have each expressed a high level of confidence in this year's team (via MLive.com's Diamond Leung). 

Hey, if Cleaves and Magic co-sign, you should too. 

 

Dawson's Year?

March 3, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) moves the ball by Michigan State Spartans forward Branden Dawson (22)  in the first half at Crisler Center. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In January, Morris Peterson, a Flintstone, told me that he thought Dawson was on the way to stardom. In November of 2011, Izzo had similar thoughts when asked about Dawson's potential.

There have been roadblocks and injury halting progress, but Dawson, a former 5-star recruit, looks like he'll live up to expectations. He's improved his game and has more experience. That's a recipe for success.

Izzo saw it two years ago (and when recruiting). MoPete has taken notice. This year, Dawson is set to show it.  

 

The Bench

Travis Trice has developed into a reliable defender.
Travis Trice has developed into a reliable defender./Getty Images

As a freshman, Valentine led the bench with five points per game. More importantly, he was one of Izzo's best rebounders, throwing 4.1 on the stat sheet each night. 

Perhaps undervalued, Valentine should prove to be a key piece to success this season. He can spell Appling at the point, giving Izzo a taller and stronger 1-guard as a second option. 

Trice is all hustle. He's Michigan State's Aaron Craft. He's put up double-digits before, but he's best known for stalling the tempo's push up the court. 

A modestly rated 3-star recruit, Ellis, a 6'5" pure shooter, adds range to the fold. His development, of course, should be a top storyline this season. 

 

The Payne Factor

Throw the ball somewhere near the rim and let Payne do the rest. 

That may be an actual set play this year. Having one of the country's elite bigs should help lessen the load for the guards. 

Remember the 2004-05 team, which not only had great depth at guard, but great depth everywhere. And Paul Davis. Can't forget Paul Davis. 

Davis was a solid force in the paint. So is Payne, who has a little more to offer athletically. 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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