Travis Trice is on the up-and-up.
After rolling through November without much of a hitch, Michigan State enters December as one of the most dynamic teams in the land.
The No. 1-ranked Spartans (7-0) beat Kentucky, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech, but they did stumble a bit against Columbia and Portland prior to Thanksgiving. However, their most recent 98-65 thumping of Mount St. Mary's proved that they're ready for the prime-time spotlight—which they'll get Dec. 4 when hosting North Carolina.
The Tar Heels have long been a thorn in Tom Izzo's side. They beat him in the 2005 Final Four and again in the 2009 title bout. Needless to say, Izzo's probably looking to welcome them into the friendly confines of the Breslin Center, where opponents rarely escape with a win.
For that to happen, players such as Keith Appling and Gary Harris must be at their highest levels, for they're facing the No. 16-ranked team in the country. The same goes for Denzel Valentine, whose rapid development will only benefit the Spartans, and for Adreian Payne, who is one of the most feared bigs in college hoops today.
It's stock watch time. Who's hot? Who's not? Who has the most potential to shine vs. North Carolina? All of that will be addressed in this handy slideshow.
Note: Izzo has used multiple lineups and will continue doing so. The players highlighted on this list are the ones getting the most minutes, not necessarily starting from the opening tip.
It's time to see what Dawson can really do.
It's too early to determine whether or not a player is on the downtrend, but it's not too early to see who's on the upswing.
Case in point: Brandon Dawson.
The 6'6", 220-pound junior wingman has been due for his current level of play. Suffering an ACL injury as a freshman certainly didn't aide his development, and the aftereffects were clear during this past season.
Dawson saw a dip in field-goal percentage from .577 to .531. He bumped up his scoring average from 8.4 to 8.9 points per game, but that was hardly the leap that was expected.
In most cases, a player earns time on the court by holding onto the ball. Dawson averaged a turnover about every 13 minutes as a sophomore, compared to one every 14 minutes as a freshman. But he went from 43 turnovers to 73 during that span.
In short, Dawson was on the downward spiral in 2012-13, despite averaging nearly seven minutes more per game.
But put all of that aside, because Dawson is reaching his potential this year. He's cut turnovers to about one every 20 minutes and jumped from 5.6 boards to 9.7 per game, which is roughly a 50 percent increase. He's also doubled assists, pushing from 1.3 to 2.6 per outing.
Again, it's early, and Dawson's stat sheets have benefited from lesser competition. But keep in mind that he scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds vs. the Sooners.
Wednesday vs. North Carolina should provide an accurate gauge of Dawson's progress. It'll be the best competition he's faced since Kentucky, and given the Spartans' history with the Tar Heels, he'll probably be looking to avenge 2011's loss on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson.
An energized Trice means great things for MSU.
Travis Trice’s 15-point game vs. Mount St. Mary’s was just that—a 15-point game vs. Mount St. Mary’s.
But the days of him putting up those types of numbers against upper-echelon competition are drawing near.
With a 3-for-4 night from beyond the arc, Trice showed that he’s developing into a long-range weapon that can be relied upon by Izzo.
Finally healthy after a concussion-riddled sophomore year, Trice appears thrice the player he was as a freshman.
“You don’t know how much we missed him last year in some games,” Izzo said, via Derek Blalock of The State News. “He was our second-best three‑point shooter, and I think that’s improved some. So with him, it’s mostly his health and I think great improvement in his skills.”
Dawson is coasting along, but don’t forget about Trice, who is perhaps the most underrated man on Izzo’s roster. The following table chronicles Trice's improvement from his sophomore year to now. This season is a small sample, of course, but it's difficult not to notice something different about Trice.
Being healthy probably has a lot do with it.
|Points||Assists||Steals||3 PT %|
Appling is just getting started.
If Keith Appling doesn't fill his senior shoes, the Spartans won't go very far in March, a time period dominated by guard play, which is also known as The Madness.
So far, Appling is doing everything right. He's leading by example and on the score sheet. The shoot-first point guard is making strides into becoming a more efficient passer, although he's never going to be short on the scoring touch.
Appling gave 27 points to the Spartans during 29 minutes of play against Oklahoma. He only had two assists, but he committed just two turnovers. His showing against the Sooners was probably his best overall game in a Michigan State uniform.
It was certainly his most impressive offensive output since chucking a trio of threes during the final 90 seconds of Michigan State's first-round tourney loss to UCLA in 2011.
A candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, Appling is the glue that binds the Spartans. He's the (noun) that makes things (action verb).
Denzel Valentine's skills have always been there. As a freshman, minus the freshman mistakes, Valentine looked quite polished. That happens when your dad and older brother both played college ball.
That being said, expectations for the Lansing-bred talent are high, but not sky-high. Well, that was the case before this season, because Valentine has set the bar a little higher for himself.
He'll be the only one to blame if he doesn't achieve some type of all-conference honor. He's developed into that good of a player. Valentine has transformed from a pretty decent bench guy into an invaluable piece to the Spartans' championship puzzle.
With six now, he needs just 11 more 3-pointers to eclipse the 16 he had last year. And he's only a sophomore, which is the icing on the cake for Izzo, who'll lose Payne, Appling, along with Harris and, most likely, Dawson after this year.
Valentine is part of the future, just like Trice.
Far from just a shooter, Valentine's flexing muscle in the paint and physically dominating competition. He's throwing it back to his days at Lansing Sexton. He only needed one go-round to catch up with the rest of the Big Ten.
Watch for Valentine to grow into a true all-leaguer in 2013-14. He's on a team ripe with a few, but his level of progression shouldn't go unnoticed.
Harris should be a top-10 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Earlier, it was said that it was, well, too early to determine whether or not a player's on the slide...
And that's true.
But Gary Harris' 3-point shooting has been horrendous through seven games; he's hit just 13 of 49 attempts, including an 0-of-10 streak vs. Virginia Tech.
If he works out that issue, Harris will undoubtedly be the gem of the shooting guards. At 6'4" and 205 pounds, Harris has the size to fight for and create his own shot. He's fantastic off the catch-and-shoot, although he's failed to really showcase that skill this season.
His scoring average is up to about 17 points, about a five-point increase from his freshman season, in which he won Big Ten Freshman of the Year props from coaches and media. Harris is being slept on because of the frosh-crazed landscape created by Kentucky's Julius Randle, Duke's Jabari Parker and Kansas' Andrew Wiggins.
Those three are NBA-bound, no question. But Harris headlines a group of immensely talented old guys. Take another look at his game before crowning a newcomer as the top guard. Harris has all of the tools and a team-first attitude.
Staying in college was his choice. He could have jumped into the NBA waters this past spring. Just because he wasn't one-and-done doesn't mean a thing. There aren't many shooters at Kansas, Duke or Kentucky who can dictate game flow like Harris.
Shooting from the arc's down, but everything else is running on high octane.
Payne is primed.
As goes for most things, time will ultimately tell the story.
The main contributors have been highlighted, all except one: Adreian Payne, the 6'10", 3-point shooting gazelle in the middle for the Spartans.
Now a senior, the past three years have been a prequel to "The Show" that Payne is about to star in this year. Four-year players go to Final Fours. That's a tradition at Michigan State. Payne has to be a conquering menace in the paint if the Spartans are to reach Jerry's World.
But he'll probably have to knock down a few from long range, too. After all, that's now part of his game. Spotting up and letting the deep ball fly has now become a strength rather than a liability.
In 2012-13, onlookers were amazed to see Payne hit 16 from beyond the arc. This year, he's made 10. That pretty much says everything. Izzo lets Payne take them too, which is the kicker. Just two years ago, Izzo would have flipped his kit had Payne entertained the thought of freely shooting.
Payne had that ability in high school, but the Big Ten is much different than an Ohio prep league.
The following table sheds light on Payne's senior- and junior-year stats.
After Wednesday, the college basketball world will get a better idea of which teams and players will do what as the year progresses. As of now, Izzo has at least two All-American candidates on his roster, with Appling being a possible third depending on his performance.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81