The Michigan State Spartans have a storied history of basketball excellence, particularly under the tutelage of head coach Tom Izzo. Many of his past successful teams have had a plethora of talent, size, maturity and togetherness, which has fueled them to postseason success.
And Izzo's 2013-14 squad is no exception.
The Spartans are currently ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll, but they pose the greatest threat to be the last ones dancing come early April.
Their lethal combination of shooting, quickness, size, defensive prowess and experience will lead them to desired heights in the Big Dance. And, in Izzo, the Spartans also have one of the greatest leaders in college basketball as their signal-caller.
At 11-1, Michigan State has already won a couple of big-time contests against respected opponents. As many of the preeminent preseason teams are struggling to find their groove, Michigan State has remained as steady as ever.
However, the Spartans have already had their share of injuries and at times haven't looked as dominant as one may expect. But they have found ways to emerge victorious in games that they struggled in, which is indicative of a championship squad.
They will inevitably face supreme challenges in a conference that currently boasts three of the top five teams in the country. That's not to include other bona fide threats such as Michigan and Iowa that Izzo and company will have to conquer as well.
But come tourney time, the Spartans will be as ready as ever and will eventually hoist the championship trophy.
These are the reasons why.
This Michigan State team has it all.
First, they can score by their guards beating opponents on the perimeter. Point guard Keith Appling is a great penetrator with tremendous vision, which allows him to get into the lane and create scoring opportunities for teammates or himself. This season, the senior is averaging 15.9 points with a team-leading five assists per game. Appling also sets the tone on the other end of the floor.
His backcourt counterpart, Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Gary Harris, is a dynamic 2-guard who can score in a variety of ways. Despite his struggling jump shot thus far, Harris poses the greatest three-point threat. But when he's not knocking down perimeter shots, he is slashing the lane and using his explosiveness to finish above the rim. The Indiana native is averaging 17.9 points this year.
Appling and Harris form arguably the nation's best backcourt, as both players score at a high rate and play defense with intensity. However, the Spartan frontcourt may be equally as impressive.
Adreian Payne is a versatile power forward who has added a consistent jump shot to his repertoire. Payne, a recruit from Dayton, Ohio, entered college as a raw prospect with sheer athleticism. But over his four years, he has evolved into an outstanding outside shooter, as he is shooting 45.3 percent from three-point range. Payne leads the team with 18 points registered per game, while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and over 82 percent from the charity stripe.
While Payne's fellow frontcourt mates don't share a similar well-rounded offensive skill set, they are exceptional in their respective specialties.
Brandon Dawson is an athletic small forward who changes the momentum of games with jaw-dropping dunks. He is a tremendous slasher and scores mostly off cuts or putbacks around the rim.
Alongside Dawson is sophomore forward Matt Costello, who rounds out the starting five. Costello isn't regarded as a noteworthy athlete or a prolific shooter, but he is the scrappiest of the Spartans. He makes the effort plays on both ends. Costello is a solid defender and offers a consistent, reliable asset to a talented Spartans team.
Among the two key bench players are point guard Travis Tryce and shooting guard Denzel Valentine. Tryce, a reliable ball-handler and accurate three-point shooter, is a capable backup to Appling. However, his size may throw him out of the rotation against bulkier teams, such as Kentucky, which we have seen before.
Additionally, Valentine is a solid, all-around scorer. He is effective when he is driving to the hoop but can also hit the open outside shot, which is why he is fourth in scoring on the Spartans roster.
Tom Izzo has a legitimate 7-man rotation that can compete with anyone. His squad can score in virtually every fashion possible, something that is essential against stingy defensive units. The Spartans also lead the country in assists per game, while averaging 83.3 points.
Defensively, they are a cohesive group that gives up only 65 points per game. They guard on the perimeter well and also protect the rim.
Izzo may have the most complete team in the country, both offensively and defensively.
The "Tom Izzo factor" adds a considerable strategical and emotional advantage to any Spartans team. Given the overwhelming supply of talent with his current squad, Izzo's prudence may be the determining factor.
As the head coach in East Lansing for the last 17 years, Izzo's teams have been to an astounding six Final Fours. He has led the Spartans to seven Big Ten championships, while coaching his teams to NCAA tournament bids in each of the last 16 seasons. He has won over 71 percent of his games throughout his tenure.
That is as impressive of a resume as any.
Izzo's unique passion has awarded him the ultimate respect by his players. His "Players Play- Tough Players Win" attitude has resonated with past teams and has helped engrave the signal-caller's mindset into the players.
Any Izzo team is a tough-nosed squad who plays together. Perhaps none of his teams has embodied that mindset more than this current squad, which shares the ball better than any other team in the nation.
The face of Michigan State basketball, Izzo is the reason why the Spartans have surged to national supremacy since his arrival. Expect him to lead this talented and experienced Spartans team to North Texas in early April.
Unlike other highly touted teams around the nation, Michigan State doesn't have a single freshman who plays significant minutes. Leadership certainly isn't foreign to this squad.
The starting lineup features two seniors, one junior and two sophomores. Appling, Payne and Dawson, three of the team's primary players, have already won a Big Ten title along with two Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Four of the five starters also started on last season's team. As past tournaments have shown, with the exception to Kentucky's 2012 national championship team, the eventual victor has typically returned multiple starters along with upperclassmen leadership.
These Spartans players have already been exposed to the national stage. That experience will lead to postseason success.
The opponents on the Michigan State schedule will more than adequately prepare them for March Madness. The Spartans have already beaten a top team in Kentucky, but more arduous tests are still down the line.
While only four of the Top 25 teams in the country represent the Big Ten, an incredible three of them round out the Top 5.
Ohio State, currently sitting at fourth in the country, has silenced critics who discerned their lack of scoring as a reason for a decline in 2013-14. Well, they were wrong. While the Buckeyes won't be the most prolific scoring team, they do average a solid 74 points per game. But it's their defense that separates them. The Buckeyes rank third in the country in scoring defense, allowing a meager 54 points per game.
In addition to the Buckeyes, the Wisconsin Badgers also find themselves in the Top 5 in the country. This Badgers team, led by the venerable Bo Ryan, is similar to Ohio State in terms of style. They beat teams with monotonous discipline and defensive stinginess. The Badgers only allow 60 points per game, while having five guys score nine points or more.
The Buckeyes and Badgers will probably present the toughest tests for Michigan State. But don't let the rankings fool you; the Big Ten represents more than just a few capable teams.
Iowa is hitting their stride at an electric pace. Led by three upperclassmen, the Hawkeyes are scoring points at will through sharing the ball and using their dominant size. They are second in the country in scoring, third in rebounds per game and fifth in assists per game. Iowa presents matchup nightmares opponents, led by the versatile small forward Roy Devyn Marble, who is one of the most underrated players in college basketball.
Additionally, Michigan will inevitably find their groove to present the rest of the Big Ten with another contender. Even with the absence of McGary, the Wolverines have too much scoring on the perimeter to overlook.
This season, Michigan State will have to travel to all four of those schools, many of which present the toughest places to play in the country. While the aforementioned teams are legitimate postseason threats, none can match the Spartans' combination of athleticism, scoring and defense.
But they will be challenged. These showdowns will prepare them for March.
Unlike certain previous seasons, there isn't one preeminent force in the country.
In 2012, it was undoubtedly Kentucky. Last year, after they emerged victorious in the Big East Tournament, Louisville was the favorite to cut down the final nets. And both succeeded.
However, this season, many of the highly touted preseason teams have already limped to slow starts, such as Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan. There isn't one team that appears to be indestructible.
A multitude of the top programs have also lost key players to the draft, such as Syracuse, Ohio State and Duke. Conversely, Michigan State didn't lose a single one of their top three scorers, while returning six of their top seven players.
There are squads like Arizona, which returns much of of its talent and has started off the season looking like a force. Oklahoma State is a team that doesn't garner as much national attention as the iconic programs, yet they return the best point guard in college basketball alongside an array of talented scorers. Duke and Kansas, while struggling at times thus far, certainly possess the talent to make deep tournament runs.
But Michigan State doesn't have a glaring weakness. They don't rely too heavily on one or two players to score the majority of points and have arguably the most balanced scoring attack in the country. The conference they play in will surely prepare them for the nation's top teams that they will face in the Big Dance.
The deciding factor? The man they have they have running the show, Tom Izzo. As long as they enter the Big Dance at full health, the Michigan State Spartans will win the national championship in a season that is completely wide open.