The outlook for Michigan State's 2014-15 campaign is much different from last season’s. With arguably the Spartans’ top three players gone and a host of new role players entering East Lansing, the masterful Tom Izzo will attempt to win with a unique set of players.
Despite surrendering an excess of talent, the upcoming team has more depth. The 2014 recruiting class wasn’t the most dynamic, but the three prospects Izzo garnered will surely impact the squad in unique ways.
Additionally, past complementary players are now stepping into more prominent roles. The offseason and team’s progression is encouraging, according to Izzo and Travis Trice, as players are reportedly working harder than ever to improve into a championship-caliber team.
Currently, it remains unclear whether Bryn Forbes will be granted eligibility this year. His hardship waiver continues to be reviewed by the NCAA, so for the sake of this article, we will assume Forbes won’t play this season.
Even if he is unavailable, this team’s newfound flexibility with a new crop of players will allow Izzo to tinker with multiple lineups.
PG: Travis Trice
SG: Alvin Ellis III
SF: Denzel Valentine
PF: Branden Dawson
C: Matt Costello
It’s tough to decipher which players Izzo will start because of his options at every position.
The guaranteed starters are forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine. Both started on last season’s Elite Eight team and will headline the Spartan attack entering the 2014-15 campaign.
Senior point guard Travis Trice is pretty much a lock to start as well. His impressive summer and consistency as a backup throughout his career warrants a spot as a starter.
At center will likely be Matt Costello, who has more experience than his competition, Gavin Schilling. Costello started sporadically in the wake of injuries to MSU’s forwards last season, but he needs to develop more consistency.
Kenny Kaminski will likely remain a weapon Izzo brings off the bench in a traditional set. He was the Big Ten’s most accurate three-point shooter at 49.4 percent.
Aside from the center spot, the shooting guard position also remains up for grabs. Alvin Ellis III played sparingly as a freshman but showed some promise in his limited minutes. Javon Bess is a versatile shooting guard who will enter his freshman season, and Marvin Clark could potentially play there as well, though, he is probably more of a small forward.
Let’s assume Alvin Ellis will start at shooting guard, given his experience. This starting lineup may change frequently throughout the season, which is a luxury for a team that lost some key players.
This lineup isn’t prone to many mismatches because of their quickness at the guard spots mixed with athleticism and size in the frontcourt. This lineup has five distinct players, all of whom pose different threats on the floor.
Playing Small Ball
PG: Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn
SG: Travis Trice
SF: Alvin Ellis III
PF: Denzel Valentine
C: Branden Dawson
One of MSU’s advantages heading into the season is its solid duo at the point guard position. Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn is a lightning quick, tone-setting guard and tremendous leader, while his counterpart, Trice, is a sweet-shooting marksman from the perimeter.
Their games are vastly different, but that’s a luxury for Izzo.
With these players, he can afford to play them together when the team wants to play a smaller lineup. Nairn would assume the point guard role, and Trice would move over to the shooting guard slot, where he can spot up and shoot.
Alongside the two could be Ellis or Bess. Ellis showed some promise last season during his minimal playing time, and Bess has serious potential to emerge as a difference-maker.
Either can play the wing across from Trice within this lineup.
At the forward spot could be Denzel Valentine, the captain and returning starter. He is one of the premier rebounders in the country for a guard, as he occupied at least eight boards nine different times last season.
That leaves the freakishly athletic Branden Dawson at the 5 spot, which is a tall task for a 6’6” forward. His athletic ability and physicality compensates for his size, however, and he played from the post all of last season.
If Izzo still wants a bigger body at the center spot, Matt Costello or Gavin Schilling could play there, while Dawson moves to the 4 with Valentine returning to his natural spot on the wing. Regardless, Izzo has plenty of potential options in a small lineup.
This will be the Spartans' greatest strength because of their overload of capable guards. This lineup will likely be the type of group that Tom Izzo elects to use when he needs a bucket late in the game.
PG: Travis Trice
SG: Denzel Valentine
SF: Branden Dawson
PF: Kenny Kaminski
C: Matt Costello
If there is one glaring weakness on this squad, it is the absence of a proven center. That complicates the process for playing a bigger lineup, one that will potentially need to be utilized against the athletic Wisconsin Badgers.
Their frontcourt of Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker will cause fits for teams that are limited on the blocks.
That means Costello and Schilling need to improve immensely over the offseason. If they do, Izzo can interchange them at the center position.
Kenny Kaminski is another big man, but he is a marksman from three-point range. At 6’8”, he prefers to drift out to the perimeter and doesn’t really pose a threat as a low-post scorer, but his defense isn’t a liability. He could play next to Schilling or Costello at forward.
Assuming Branden Dawson improves his shooting, he could play on the wing, where his 6’6” frame suits him best. He is quick enough to contain guards and way too overpowering on the wing for opponents to contain.
The 6’5” Valentine would move to shooting guard, while Trice would occupy the point.
The key to MSU’s season will be the progression of the big men. As long as they are serviceable, then the Spartans can survive against the frontcourt-dominated teams, such as their Big Ten foe, Wisconsin.
Despite the obscurity of the center position, Schilling and Costello are both capable athletes and solid defenders. They will especially be used in defensive situations, such as late-game scenarios when MSU needs one final stop.
Although this year's team isn't as talented as last season's, the parity at all positions is a massive advantage. The 2014-15 squad could surprise those who immediately overlooked this team once Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling left.