The youth movement in East Lansing has come to a relative standstill.
At this stage of the game, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn’t have a key freshman or sophomore to help advance plans—his 79-70 loss to Michigan only highlighted that disparity.
Veterans have long carried the Spartans, which obviously points to overall development. How else would seniors such as Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green earn such high praise?
Essentially, Cleaves was a hit from the start. Green, though, took two years to really get going.
By various measures, coaches find success with the personnel at their disposal. Some programs are based on long-tenured leaders who assist their coaching staffs in building from within, while others thrive with 5-star, one-and-doners in the making.
Balance is there to be found.
Izzo isn’t known for snagging the blue-chip athletes, although he has in the past. He’s not one for recruiting dramatics, either. Commit or move on—that seems to be his message to prospects.
That, of course, puts him out of the running for some of the high-end talents who drive the Kansases and Kentuckys of the world. Kansas and Kentucky have also recently won national titles.
Other than Kalin Lucas, who won Big Ten player of the year honors in 2009 as a sophomore, and Gary Harris, who was the league's frosh of the year in 2013, Izzo’s well has been dry of true, young stars.
The lack of a consistent push from underclassmen—lately in particular—is one of the many reasons why he isn’t atop the Big Ten standings…
…That would be the place of his in-state counterpart, John Beilein, who, for all intents and purposes, has caught the mighty Michigan State basketball machine—at least when summarizing the recent past and a 6-2 record in the past eight games of the rivalry series.
A year ago, Trey Burke, the player of the year, was the catalyst for Beilein’s run to the national title. The Wolverines lost, but they wouldn’t have been in the position to play Louisville for it all without their incredible soph.
And there was Mitch McGary, a freshman, who carried a lot of the load.
This season, Caris LeVert, a sophomore, and Derrick Walton, a freshman, have helped pick up the pace for Beilein, who, at the moment, commands the conference.
Meanwhile, Izzo fights tooth and nail to get production out of anyone not named Adreian Payne, Keith Appling or Gary Harris—and sometimes, even they have issues.
Michigan State can't count on sophomores (Harris excluded) and freshmen to contribute when juniors and seniors find it difficult to toe the line.
There is always more to the story, but there are a few key factors that have caused the lack of reliable underclassmen.
One can't-miss can't hurt, right Tom?
Travis Walton wasn’t a blue-chip, but he certainly had a great career with the Spartans, who wouldn’t have made the 2009 national title game without the senior’s gluey defense.
There weren’t a ton of schools knocking down doors for Goran Suton, either. But after redshirting, the Lansing-bred forward/center had an all-conference career from 2005-2009 under Izzo.
Sutons and Waltons are needed, but so are the Jason Richardsons and Marcus Taylors, who both entered college as elite preps and immediately made impacts in the lineup.
A haven of 5-stars, Chicago is home to coveted prospects such as Jahlil Okafor, Charles Matthews and Cliff Alexander—each of whom once had interest in Michigan State but chose to commit elsewhere.
But who’s to say that they would flourish as Spartans?
Maybe they’ve paid attention to the hard-luck career of Branden Dawson, a former prep sensation from Lew Wallace High in Gary, Ind. Injuries and, well, bad luck, have smudged the junior’s collegiate resume.
Adreian Payne, a former 5-star, needed three years to really bloom. Now a senior, he’s back from a seven-game vacation caused by a sprained right foot. He looks to be recovering from the bum foot, but he's in danger of missing out on a four-year tradition of making it to the Final Four.
There probably weren’t many analysts predicting such a fate when Payne committed in 2009. He was supposed to be a POTY from the get-go, not a guy just trying to make it through his final year alive.
Chris Allen and Korie Lucious were young guards with immense promise, but after being dismissed by Izzo, they transferred to Iowa State (Allen 2010, Lucious 2011). Had they stayed, they would have likely led Michigan State to the promised land.
They would have.
Simply put, Izzo has to find and keep a blend of guys who range from immediate contributors to down-the-road helpers. His recent classes haven't been great examples of meeting such roster goals.
The Spartans have been harped on for their lack of toughness. That, of course, is for good reason. They're not that tough.
Calling them "weak" would be a little harsh, but perhaps "underprepared" or "unfocused" would suffice.
A sophomore with a high ceiling, Matt Costello is tough, but he's not tough all of the time. After falling 61-50 at home to Nebraska, he admitted to taking an off-day, per MLive.com's Gillian Van Stratt:
I just didn't play very hard, to be honest with you,. I played out of it, I didn't respect Nebraska at all and I got my nose shot out. Pitchford killed me. He was on a mission. He's from Michigan, wanted to play at Michigan State, didn't get the opportunity and that was his revenge game.
He took advantage of me because I was just chillin'.
These aren't words from any underclassmen, they're an admission of laziness from a vital part of future plans. When is the last time that Izzo players have publicly made such remarks?
According to the Sporting News, the Spartans are schizos. Sure, a team-wide injury epidemic has taken its toll. But Michigan State doesn't have an identity, and its mentality needs to be questioned.
Mentality and recruiting come into play here. And this is obvious: Izzo needs to hit Saginaw, Detroit and Flint, Mich. (or similar blue-collar communities) a little harder.
If Chicago guys don't want to play in East Lansing, get a hungrier Mid-Michigan kid who does.
Unfortunately, those city leagues are dying, and they once produced the gems of Izzo's classes.
Set to join next year, Lourawls "Tum-Tum" Nairn could be the next Cleaves. He has a similar physical style and a dash of more speed. He's from Kansas (well, the Bahamas, really), but his game is very upper Midwest.
For the sake of the program, Izzo better hope that Nairn quickly shoots out of the gate rather than sit on the bench.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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