Pinpointing Michigan State's potential is always difficult.
The same should be true for the 2014-15 Spartans, who have enough talent to win the Big Ten but lack a certain appeal that makes it easy to predict them as league champions.
That’s easy: Michigan State often throws a curveball to the world of college hoops. In years past, “down” teams have made it to the Final Four, whereas favorites have sometimes fallen short of expectations.
Flip a coin, pick a number out of a hat or phone a friend. At this stage of the game, which is really early, expecting anything more than a respectable contender could be a stretch of the imagination.
It'd be wise to buy but probably saner to sell—at least right now.
Michigan State @Michigan_State
Big Ten releases new 14-team conference basketball tournament bracket http://t.co/4EP9Wjrjg6 #Spartans http://t.co/rmn02jwZNs8/21/2014, 11:55:08 PM
According to Team Rankings, the Big Ten finished No. 1 in the country in terms of power last season. Michigan and Michigan State advanced to the Elite Eight, while Wisconsin landed in the Final Four.
Needless to say, the conference is once again expected to produce results this season.
So are the Badgers, who return Frank Kaminsky (a do-it-all big), Traevon Jackson (who hit a game-winner vs. MSU in 2013-14), Josh Gasser (a great role-filler), Sam Dekker (an all-around threat) and Nigel Hayes (one of the most underrated players in the game).
Plus Michigan—yes, Michigan—has something special brewing with Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert (a favorite to win league Player of the Year honors) and Zak Irvin. They will have the task of mentoring coach John Beilein’s class of upside-upon-upside recruits led by 6’7” superfrosh Kameron Chatman.
Tough sledding’s ahead. Real tough. Especially for a team that’s considerably lighter than it was a year ago.
The Spartans are missing Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling—all drafted into the NBA—but return Branden Dawson, who’s expected to really blossom as a senior. The 6’6”, 225-pound dunk machine has the benefit of playing alongside Denzel Valentine (a true jack-of-all-trades) and Travis Trice (who always puts forth a full effort).
Of course, the Spartans will be assisted by a pair of forwards, Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling, along with a solid but unheralded recruiting class comprised of Lourawls “Tum-Tum” Nairn, Javon Bess and Marvin Clark.
At this point, it’s wise to assume that Tom Izzo will get the most out of his roster, but there are several question marks that certainly make it difficult to predict the Spartans as Big Ten champs.
Will Trice reach full senior mode and lead his team as past greats have?
However, at 6’0” and 170 pounds, he’s certainly burdened by physical limitations. He’s an incredibly smart player, but not the type who can shoulder the majority of the load and dominate the competition with superior skill.
Izzo needs that at the point guard position. Getting Trice to that level is a must. Either that, or it'll be time to give Nairn a crash course on "Mateen Cleaves, Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas 101."
Also, without Kenny Kaminski, who was dismissed over the summer, the Spartans lose size and skill in the paint and from long range. Now with Ohio, the 6’8”, 225-pounder’s stroke from three-point land and ability to rebound will be sorely missed.
What about production in the paint?
Now that Payne’s gone, Izzo—who could use that extra 20-and-15 capability—needs someone to attack the boards and guarantee a few putbacks.
Can Costello, a 6’9”, 240-poundish forward, do that? He’s shown that he can in spurts. Sustaining longer runs is the next step.
Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State, should help alleviate pressure. But how will he adjust to the Big Ten? A year go, he was the Horizon League's No. 5-ranked scorer. With that said, it's different versus the likes of Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan and up-and-coming Nebraska.
There is enough to anticipate a championship. However, there's enough to equally doubt the possibility.
Then again, it's September, and Izzo's team won't show its true colors until mid-February.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81