This has been said in prior years, but the upcoming season could shape up to be one of Tom Izzo’s most challenging, frustrating and rewarding since he took over the reins of Michigan State basketball in 1995.
The veteran Spartans head coach just sent Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Gary Harris to the NBA, Russell Byrd transferred, fatherhood took precedence for Alex Gauna and Kenny Kaminski was asked to leave because he couldn’t keep his ducks in a row.
Transfer guards Bryn Forbes (Cleveland State) and Eron Harris (West Virginia) hopped aboard, but they’re not eligible until 2015-16.
So yeah, this upcoming year won’t be a cakewalk for Izzo, who just had his first class of four-year players miss the Final Four. It’s not doom and gloom for the Spartans, though; it’ll be a year of learning for their followers and a year of graduate-level teaching from their Hall of Fame-bound coach.
Who’ll Fill (in for) Kenny?
Michigan State was already going to be thin. But there was plenty of reason to remain optimistic. Then Kaminski got the boot, and that changed things a little bit.
OK, a lot.
Without the 6’8” do-all forward, Izzo’s frontcourt will suffer. For the past three seasons, his teams have lacked the program's trademark zeal on the boards. Of course, the Spartans are always one of the better rebounding teams in the Big Ten, but that’s never been good enough.
Think back to when Michigan State set the tone for college hoops. Its muscle on the glass served as a model for everyone else. Although not known for his rebounding, Kaminski was to be one of the team’s top options in the paint this season, both offensively and defensively.
The 225-pouder appeared in 31 games in 2013-14, making him one of the most experienced forwards on the roster. But now Izzo is forced to look elsewhere—and his bench is only about an arm’s length in total. One of his arms, actually.
However, Kaminski’s absence will also impact the long-range game. As a redshirt sophomore, he hit 49 percent from three-point distance; he also showed the ability to score by the bunches against Penn State (19 points, win), Minnesota (15 points, win) and Georgetown (10 points, loss).
While not major in the grand scheme of things—he didn’t want to follow the rules; Izzo told him to hit the road—the loss of Kaminski could dent the 2014-15 Spartans more than some would like to admit.
Adjusting to the circumstances will say a lot about the program, Izzo and the current players. With that being said, Branden Dawson, a 6'6", 225-pound senior, should plan to end his collegiate career with an enormous class load.
Same goes for Denzel Valentine, a 6'5", 225-pound junior.
Maybe the removal of Kaminski will be a stroke of luck for them. In the long run, adversity tends to bring out the best in winners.
Learning About Matt
He's probably aware of it, but this year will be important for Matt Costello, a 6'9", 240-pound junior forward who can absolutely be the next grit guy in Izzo's lineup. He has to be, actually. No Payne. No Gauna. Just he and Gavin Schilling, for the most part.
And maybe freshman Marvin Clark, who'll definitely get reps now that there are more minutes to disperse.
On Jan. 28, he helped Michigan State avoid a road loss by coming through late in the game. His 11 points, in part, pushed the Spartans to a 71-69 overtime victory over Iowa. For good measure, two games later, he put up 10 during a win over Penn State. In between, he scored six points on 3-of-4 shooting during a 64-60 loss to Georgetown.
The late-January/early-February spree prompted optimism. Costello was on his way. Then he fell flat, failing to hit double digits for the rest of the year.
Will freshman point guard Lourawls "Tum-Tum" Nairn be the savior? Can he enter the fold and pick up Appling's role off the bat? The 5'10" Bahamian speedster has all of the talent necessary to be an excellent 1 for Izzo, who may have another Mateen Cleaves on his hands when it's all said and done.
Nairn has been praised by several people attached to Spartans hoops. Cleaves said he sees shades of himself in Nairn, per MLive.com's Kyle Austin, which bodes well for Izzo, who absolutely needs a group of throwbacks to get back into form.
Marvin Clark, Nairn's teammate at Sunrise Christian in Wichita, told MLive.com's Mike Griffith that Izzo was the reason he chose the Spartans. Clark's a young man who has overcome a tragic childhood, so he could be looking for Izzo's brand of tough love.
"Coach Izzo thinks I'm still a baby, and he thinks he can mold me into a great player,'' Clark said to Griffith. "I've got to keep working on my ball handling, get better defensively. My goals at Michigan Sate, of course I want to play, but I want to learn and get better on and off the floor.''
How does that apply to the here and now? Spartans followers will soon find out if Nairn and Clark truly want to become pillars of the program, or if they'll crumble underneath pressure. As two major components to the future, their performances this season will serve as a gauge for what's to come for Izzo, who'll learn that getting into the Big Dance with less and less probably feels better and better.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81