Michigan State Basketball: Spartans Players with Most to Prove in 2014-15

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Michigan State Basketball: Spartans Players with Most to Prove in 2014-15
Elsa/Getty Images
When it comes to MSU hoops, it's never too early to look at next year.

Whether or not the team “belongs” to Denzel Valentine or Travis Trice is irrelevant at this point. The pair of Michigan State upperclassmen will decide that pecking order during the offseason.

However, in all likelihood, they’ll agree to run the Spartans together as 1A and 1B.

Coach Tom Izzo needs leadership. That being said, Trice, a will-be-senior, and Valentine, a will-be-junior, must run toward the challenge, not from it. Keith Appling is gone. So are Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.

There is a void, and saying that Trice and Valentine have something to prove next season would be akin to saying that water is wet and that the sun rises in the east.

But it’s necessary to discuss; and so are the roles of players such as Branden Dawson, a will-be-senior who returned for his final go with Izzo, and that of Tum-Tum Nairn, who is “next” at the point.

 

Trice is the 1

Eric Gay
From Keith to Travis: The keys have been handed over to the next man for the job.

Does the term "senior point man" ring a bell? It should. It's the most coveted position in East Lansing. 

Trice isn't Appling, nor is he Kalin Lucas or Drew Neitzel. But that's OK. He's Travis Trice, and that's been enough for the past three seasons.

Plagued by concussion-like symptoms, Trice's ascent has been slow and anything but steady. 

But it's been there, and he's most certainly invaluable to Michigan State's overall game plan for 2014-15. 

As the 1-guard, Trice's job is to make things run smoothly, orchestrate the offense and defense and to be Izzo's go-to. 

The job description could read as follows: Must be proficient with late-game heroics, must be able to hit clutch free-throws, must have experience at overcoming injuries and playing at less than full capacity. 

Lucas did. Neitzel did. Appling did. Trice has done it from time to time. But next year, he'll have to be a full-timer. 

For the most part, Spartans point men have been efficient scorers. Some, such as Lucas, have been better than others. Trice can blow up for 20 points, but he's not a high-powered threat. But he can distribute, and that makes up for his lack of offensive prowess and size (listed at 6'0," 170 pounds).

As a junior, Trice averaged 7.3 points, 2.3 assists and 22.3 minutes, all career highs, per game. He committed just one turnover per outing, which is a plus for a point guard. 

Note: He's battled injury, but he's had to dodge cars as well. Izzo may want to bubble-wrap Trice during the offseason:

 

Be My Valentine

Elsa/Getty Images
Valentine has team MVP written all over him.

Statistically, this past season, Valentine was an 8-and-6 guy. But not during the tournament; he was more like a 5-and-6 contributor. Of course, the 6'5," 225-pound former Lansing Sexton star is capable of much more than that. 

In 2013-14, he tilted the scoreboard 16 times for 10 or more points, complemented by a flurry of 15- and 16-point efforts. He had a few double-doubles, and flirted with a few more, too. That's the real Valentine—a consistent 10-point, 10-board production artist who has the ability to step out and shoot or drive. 

And he can pass. Oh, can he pass...

Appling led the Spartans with 4.5 assists per game. However, Valentine's 3.8 per game were usually more impressive. 

 

Dawson's Streak

Dawson made the wise choice by returning for his senior year. Now he has to embody that title. Four-year players are common for Izzo. Dawson is the position to deliver massive results before he heads to the NBA. 

His tournament exploits have been well-documented. He tore up the Big Ten postseason with 15 points and seven boards per game. With exception to the Elite Eight loss to UConn, the eventual national champion, he was great during March Madness. 

Spartans fans saw the Dawson that should have emerged two years ago. He's always had the athleticism and, at 6'6" and 220 pounds, the size. He's a highlight reel with a skill set, once completely polished, that should translate well to the Association. 

Some of Dawson's banner moments include 26- and 24-point offerings in the Big Dance, all kinds of dunks and a variety of fantastic rebounds and defensive plays. 

However, this stat is the kicker: Michigan State was 15-0 when Dawson scored 10 or more points. That's a beautiful thing for Izzo. Dawson can score 10 in his sleep. In fact, he's done that for most of his career. 

Imagine what will happen when he finally gets "it." He appeared to have a solid grasp on "it" as a junior, despite missing nine games due to a broken right hand. Now a fourth-year statesman, the onus is on Dawson to perform and help return seniors to the Final Four. 

 

Call Him Tum-Tum

Lucas was "Too Easy." 

Nairn could be "Too Fast."

Who has the most to prove?

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However, as a freshman, Nairn, or Tum-Tum for those who love the nickname, may find himself in a peculiar position. He's Izzo's next man in the rotation, and Trice leaves after this year. Experience will come as the season progresses, but there may be times when Izzo needs more than relief from the bench. He may choose to start Nairn depending on how things play out on the court.

Unlikely as it may seem, the Spartans may end up relying upon Nairn to do a little more than just "learn" and "take in" the college game. 

At 5'10" and 165 pounds, Nairn could stand to put on some weight. But don't discount him on that fact alone. He's physical and elusive. He finds ways to score and get the ball to open shooters. 

The first year won't be make or break. But it wouldn't hurt Nairn to show that he's ready for the true task that follows in 2015-16. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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