Michigan State Basketball: One Pressing Concern for Each Spartans Starter

Brad AlmquistFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: One Pressing Concern for Each Spartans Starter

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    The Michigan State Spartans are off to their best start in school history, impressively displaying their fortitude despite the absence of an All American-caliber player. Yet each Spartans starter can still improve on their early-season struggles and concerns.

    Thus far, the storyline of the season has been the constant fluctuation of lineups and personnel changes due to injuries.

    First, it was Keith Appling’s departure from the North Carolina game with a hip pointer. Then came Gary Harris’ ankle issue. Soon after arose Branden Dawson’s unidentified sickness. Most recently, and most notably, was Adreian Payne’s ankle, which is still slowly recuperating.

    Injuries or not, the ethic has remained unchanged: just win. And the Spartans have had no problem doing it, prevailing in 17 of their 18 contests up to this point.

    As Izzo has constantly tinkered with the rotation, switching the starting lineup an astounding nine different times, players have been forced to accept distinct roles. The “next man up” approach can be troublesome, but nonetheless hasn’t flipped the Spartans over to the loss column in several weeks.

    But they haven’t been perfect. With new, unforeseen roles come subsequent struggles, which has been the case with certain Spartans. Additionally, other guys have struggled in particular areas because they have been forced to play with nagging injuries.

    Let’s take a look into each Spartan starter’s most pressing concern heading into their matchup against Indiana.

Keith Appling: Limiting Turnovers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Thus far, the concerns have been minimal for the senior point guard. Appling is shooting, rebounding, and assisting at higher rates than he ever has before.

    But we’re here to nitpick.

    If such an issue exists in Appling’s body of work this season, it has been a recent increase in turnovers. Now, a spike in that statistic is reasonable, considering the peculiar circumstances that he has been faced with.

    First, Appling is playing without his senior running mate, Adreian Payne, who is an integral part of the offense. Additionally, Gary Harris has been banged up, although he certainly seems to have finally recovered. And Branden Dawson still just isn’t right.

    That places the onus on Appling, who is forced to facilitate and score at a high, efficient rate, even without Payne.

    Over the last four contests, Appling is averaging three turnovers per game, compared to his 1.8 per game prior to that point. But even throughout that four-game span, the Detroit native’s assist-to-turnover ratio is still positive.

    Again, it’s difficult to locate a deficiency for Appling, which is a testament to how well he’s performed. If he continues his electric play, Tom Izzo will live with the momentary spike in turnovers.

Gary Harris: Inconsistent Three-Point Shot

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    Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Spor

    Beginning in late December, a slowly recovering ankle injury hindered Harris’ explosion and liftoff on his jump shots, which frustrated the shooting guard enough to grade his season performance as a C-plus.

    But that may have all changed last Saturday.

    Harris’ 23-point outburst against Illinois officially marked the sophomore marksman’s return to normalcy. And for the first team all season, he shot above 50 percent from the floor in a single game.

    Despite the impressive performance, Harris’ most pressing concern is his inconsistent three-point jump shot.

    He is shooting 31.5 percent from three, which isn’t horrible, but it’s certainly not where he wants to be, nor near his capabilities as a long distance shooter.

    In his first three Big Ten contests, Harris drained a remarkable 10 of 18 three-point attempts. But since, he has made a mere three of 18 from long range and looked surprisingly uncomfortable shooting the ball in the Northwestern game.

    But he certainly has the ability. Harris has showcased that sporadically throughout this season, not to mention his percentage from three-point range as a freshman was 41.1.

    Despite his shooting struggles, Tom Izzo has pointed out that Harris has shot exceptionally well from midrange. And he’s still averaging 17.9 points per game.

    If that jump shot circulates back to consistency, Harris’ offensive repertoire will be as complete as ever.

    That’s bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.

Branden Dawson: Lacking Assertiveness

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    It’s certainly been a frustrating season for the hyper-athletic Dawson, whose inconsistent performances, along with apparent mental lapses has him in a perpetual slump.

    For the junior forward, there isn’t just one facet to the game that he is currently lacking. The most prevalent concern with Dawson is his lack of overall assertiveness.

    Strangely enough, the storyline for Dawson’s season was held to a different tune in early January. Tom Izzo titled him as “resurgent,” which at the time was evident, but now couldn’t be further from reality.

    20 points here, two points there, 18 more here and then a disappointing eight there. It’s difficult to locate the sole reason regarding Dawson’s woes, but just watching him, he lacks the consistent tenacity that could potentially morph him into an unstoppable force.

    After a disappointing two-game stretch with subsequent questions about his physical health, he appeared to be more tuned in last game against Illinois. That’s encouraging for the Spartans.

    While he probably will never be a sharpshooter or a guy who relies on post-up situations to score, he could kill defenses with put-backs and thunderous finishes around the rim.

    Again, he has all of athleticism in the world. But the sporadic mental lapses are inhibiting his potential.

Denzel Valentine: Low Shooting Percentage

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    Valentine probably had his best game of the season in the Spartans’ recent win over Illinois, scoring 15 points on an efficient six for nine from the floor. He also added 11 rebounds and four dimes.

    But Valentine’s shooting stroke hasn’t been particularly accurate this season. Saturday marked the first occurrence since November that Valentine shot above 50 percent.

    The sophomore is only shooting 38.1 percent from the field. While his skill set isn’t solely predicated around shooting, he does possess the ability to score in a variety of ways, though his percentages haven’t reflected that yet.

    Like Gary Harris, Valentine’s momentary resurgence came last game, so it remains unclear if their hot shooting will carry over. But adding a consistent three-point shot to Valentine’s well-rounded skill set could do wonders for the Spartan offense.

Matt Costello: Limited Offensive Skill Set

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    Matt Costello will never be the flashiest or most talented guy in the gym, yet he is effective as a rim-protector and finisher on the offensive end.

    Since his reactivation to the lineup after mononucleosis, he has been the staple to a Michigan State defense that has allowed a meager 51 points per game in its last two contests.

    The hard-nosed Costello works well in a specified role, but he is limited on the offensive end. His most pressing concern is his inability to knock down open outside shots.

    While some would argue that the Spartans don’t need him to fill the roll of an outside shooter, consider this: Adreian Payne possessed very minimal shooting ability when he walked onto campus, and now four years later, he has opened up the Spartans attack because he added that to his skill set.

    Now, Costello clearly doesn’t have Payne’s physical abilities. But if he were able to pose a threat by stepping outside of the lane to knock down open shots, then the Spartan offense would be that much more lethal. It would create gaping holes in the lane for Keith Appling and Gary Harris to drive through because the defense would have to respect Costello.

    Nobody is asking the sophomore forward for a drastic change.  But his inability to hit open outside shots limits him to one role: finishing dump-offs around the hoop, and hardly anything else.

    Costello could potentially morph into a fantastic two-way player with the implementation of a solid jump shot.