Michigan State Basketball: Spartans' Biggest Goals for Nonconference Play
Michigan State is doing what it should be doing this time of year in college basketball—tightening up for February and March by leaping hurdles along one of the country's most notorious paths, also known as any non-conference slate scheduled by Tom Izzo.
The Spartans (6-0) are ranked No. 1 in the land and have shown why with wins over Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma. That talented trio of opponents has given Izzo a good idea of what his team is made of as it enters December.
Having won the 2013 Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y., Michigan State has one remaining notable non-league foe in North Carolina (Dec. 4), which always pushes Izzo's teams to the limit.
This slideshow will examine the goals that the Spartans have achieved and touch on milestones yet to come for Michigan State, a clear favorite to be among the last standing from the 2014 Final Four.
Get Dawson Rolling
Time is of the essence for the Spartans, who could be without Branden Dawson, among others, next season.
Izzo has to get wins while the getting is good, and Dawson is ready to enter the national stage. He's been one of the most athletic wings in the Big Ten for the past two season. This season should prove to be his true, dominant college effort.
Although it has only been six games, the 6'6", 220-pound junior is averaging 11 points and nearly 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Dawson's late tip-in helped Michigan State nip Kentucky and he helped the Spartans turn back Columbia, which fought until the bitter end before losing in East Lansing. If there's a guy who can inject a boost into Izzo's smooth-running machine, it's Dawson.
Turnovers will diminish national title hopes in a hurry.
The Spartans currently have a plus-3.83 turnover margin moment, but that doesn't provide much comfort when a team averages at least 10 turnovers per game.
There are two versions of Izzo Ball: one being a slow, methodical, almost Wisconsin-like play; the other an uptempo, run-with-Kentucky/Oklahoma type of game.
Turnovers are part of the second style of play. A fast tempo invites ill-advised passes, not to mention forced shots, which may not result in turnovers when rebounded by the other team, but it's basically the same thing. The other team gets the ball either way.
No team can totally eliminate turnovers, but Izzo has to stress the importance of ball control to Gary Harris and Keith Appling—two guards who can fly down the court, but have problems handling the ball from time to time. Harris leads the team with 13 turnovers while Appling has 10.
As one of the nation's top shooting guards, Harris will certainly hoist a few 3-pointers. In 2012-13, he made 41 percent of his attempts from deep, but this season, he's off to a cold start, highlighted by a 5-for-22 mark over the past two games.
He started out 0-for-11 against Virginia Tech and made just three of 10 versus Oklahoma.
Harris and Appling get the touches. Making the most of them will determine the Spartans' current fate and in March as well.
Kenny Kaminski is averaging 2.5 minutes while true freshmen Alvin Ellis and Gavin Schilling each average about five minutes of playing time.
Slowly but surely, Tom Izzo will integrate his young members into his rotation, but for now, he's working on getting the right starting lineup and bench corps into shape. That'll take time, and he's given Ellis, Schilling and Kaminski a few shifts each to show what they can do.
Depth comes in handy during the rough stretches. February and March aren't kind to teams with a shallow pool of personnel.
The Spartans have to get Kamisnki comfortable shooting during pressure situations. He's one of the team's top marksmen, but that means nothing when it doesn't translate from the practice gym to games.
Izzo has six more games to tinker with his strategy before heading headfirst into Big Ten territory. By then, he'll likely have Schilling more accustomed to battling college big men, Ellis should be more in tune with the offense and Kaminski would have had a chance to catch up to the rest of the team.
Alex Gauna will take on a larger role both within the offense and on defense. Michigan State has to pair him with Matt Costello to make up for the loss of Derrick Nix, a feisty big body underneath who had set the tone in the paint.
Continue Feeding Trice
Michigan State's lead wasn't going anywhere during the final 5:30 of the Spartans' 96-77 win over Virginia Tech, so maybe that's why Travis Trice was afforded so many late looks at three-point shots.
Trice made only one of three attempts, but the one he made helped put an exclamation point on the victory.
With eight three-pointers through six games, Trice is shooting about 36 percent from long range, and the same from everywhere else. He can be a great scoring option off the bench, but he just needs a few more playing minutes to build his confidence.
Remember, Trice missed stretches last season due to concussion-like symptoms. He's been through the highs and the lows, but this season, the junior can add value to his team by simply continuing his well-respected hustle.
There are bound to be nights when Keith Appling isn't himself. There will also be times in which Gary Harris won't put up 20 points. Trice, although not a reliable lead scorer, has given the Spartans 15- and 20-point efforts.
Beat North Carolina
One down, one to go.
Michigan State's Bluebloods of College Basketball Tour ends when its hosts North Carolina on Dec. 4 at the Breslin Center.
Tom Izzo's bad luck against North Carolina goes back to his Elite Eight loss in 1998, but that wasn't the real stinger. That belonged to the Spartans' title loss in 2009. Outmatched and outperformed by the more athletic Tar Heels, the Spartans were bounced, 89-72, at Ford Field of all places.
It was essentially a home loss for the Spartans on the game's biggest stage.
North Carolina also ousted Michigan State in the 2005 Final Four, and in 2012, the Tar Heels beat the Spartans aboard the USS Carl Vinson off the coast of San Diego in the first-ever Carrier Classic.
Thorn removal for Michigan State could come on Dec. 4. Granted, a regular-season win wouldn't come close to making up for tournament losses and a dismantling in a national title showdown, but it'd probably make Izzo feel a little better.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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