Michigan State will enter the 2014-15 season facing a Big Ten Conference whose talent is collectively diminishing, yet it still contains one of the nation’s top returning teams in Wisconsin. MSU’s outlook will be keenly different next year without two future first-round draft picks and a veteran point guard.
So where will the Spartans finish?
Evidently, it’s too early to predict how the lineups and players will progress. Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine headline this team’s attack, though both need to improve in important areas in order for them to lead Sparty to the top.
In terms of talent, Tom Izzo’s returning bunch clearly trails Wisconsin. The Badgers return a star-studded lineup, as Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker form a potent backcourt.
However, the talent severely drops after that. MSU, Nebraska, Michigan and possibly Iowa comprise the second tier. All of these teams return multiple key players. If any of the aforementioned squads were most poised to challenge Wisconsin, it would be Nebraska, solely from a talent perspective.
The Cornhuskers don’t have ample experience competing for a conference title or advancing in the NCAA tournament, but the combination of Terran Petteway and Sam Shields will make the Red competitive in any contest.
Aside from Kaminsky, Petteway will be a popular front-runner for player of the year.
Conversely, Michigan lost its player of the year in Nik Stauskas, an immensely improved wing who nearly led the Wolverines to a second straight Final Four. Combine that with the departures of the athletic Glenn Robinson and Mitch McGary, and head coach John Beilein must again find a way to reload.
Caris LeVert will be the heir to taking the reins. He has a chance at winning the player of the year award as well, when one considers the offensive onus he will assume. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin will complement the lanky LeVert in the back court as well.
That attack is nowhere near as talented as Michigan’s in recent years.
Similarly, Michigan State loses Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, three guys who scored most frequently and led the team. Now, it is Dawson’s team. The senior is as athletic as any forward in the country and, with an improved jump shot, can become unguardable.
Valentine improved considerably from his freshman to sophomore season. He is a rare college player who realistically could post a triple-double in a given game due to his rebounding and passing abilities. He scores well but must work on his finishing around the rim.
Sparty’s talent slightly drops after that. Lourawls Nairn is an exciting recruit who could potentially become the team’s third-best scorer. Additionally, Travis Trice is a tremendous shooter, but his game inside the arc is essentially nonexistent.
Aside from those four players, no member left on MSU’s roster has shown or proven he is capable of scoring at a consistently high rate.
However, where the Spartans’ strength clearly lies every year is in its coaching. Izzo’s ability to devise distinct game plans from game to game helps compensate for the loss of abundant talent around the court.
If Izzo and company can find a way to slow down Kaminsky and the Badgers, they will have a chance to compete for the title. However, MSU’s only contest against Wisconsin comes in the Kohl Center, a place where the Badgers perennially dominate.
It will be awfully difficult for a lesser talented team to steal a win inside Wisconsin’s sanctuary.
The race for second will be wide open. The Spartans are as talented and experienced as the rest of the field, and they possess a savant on their sidelines. The development of Nairn will be imperative, and the contributions from the other complementary guys will determine how their season unfolds.
MSU matches up well with Nebraska and Michigan. Look for the Spartans to finish anywhere from the fourth spot to the second, with the outside chance to win the entire conference.
The Spartans finished second in the Big Ten last season. Looking forward, that remains as an extremely realistic possibility again.