The Michigan State Spartans open up their 2011 campaign in historical fashion in tonight’s Carrier Classic aboard USS Carl Vinson against the No. 1 ranked Tar Heels of North Carolina.
The Spartans looking to bounce back from a less than stellar year in 2010, which produced lackluster results and an early tournament exit, by gaining their sea legs in the first ever college basketball game played on an aircraft carrier.
The formidable Heels are returning Preseason All-American and an early Player of the Year favorite in talented Sophomore Harrison Barnes, and it will take a strong defensive effort from the Spartans leader, Draymond Green, among others to keep Barnes and the Heels in check.
The forward Green enters his Senior season with something to prove after his individual performance somewhat mirrored the Spartan’s overall output in 2010, leaving much to be desired. He has a unique combination of strength and agility for a man of his size, and if he can learn how to fully hone these attributes in his final collegiate season then he could be a sleeper pick for Big Ten Player of the Year.
While it will be hard to get a true feel for where either team is at based on tonight’s performance (I mean let’s face it, they are shooting to a backdrop of waves and clouds), it will be interesting to see how an otherwise predominantly youthful Spartan club can hang with one of the nation’s best squads entering the season.
Sophomore Keith Appling will get the start at point filling the large Nikes left by one time Big Ten first team All Conference guard Kalin Lucas. Appling showed signs in his Freshman year that he may very well have what it takes to fill those shoes effectively with an intensity on the defensive side that coaches dream of, and a work ethic to match.
While it is always hard to have faith in a first-time starter, Spartan fans must display patience with this youngster as it appears he will have what it takes to lead this team once he gets a few games under his belt. What better way to break him in than against one of the nation’s best in arguably the most difficult conditions possible.
Joining Appling in the backcourt will be transfer Brandon Wood who joins the Spartan lineup in his final year of eligibility after starring for Valparaiso over the past few seasons. Wood will bring some much needed stability to this young group as he is known for his all around game and ability to effect outcomes in many different ways.
Wood's arrival in East Lansing has not been highly-publicized, but rest assured his presence on the court will be one that Spartan fans are grateful for once they recognize his ability to contribute. The addition of Wood to the Spartan attack will do wonders in easing Keith Appling into his new role at the helm.
The battle down low will feature the Tar Heels senior center Tyler Zeller and lanky big man John Henson versus the combination of equally string-beaned Adreian Payne, and the bulky body of Derrick Nix for State.
Payne will be thrust into the role of starter in the wake of the seemingly out-of-nowhere retirement of the Spartans Senior F/C Delvon Roe in the offseason due to long-term knee injuries which had never allowed him to play at a full 100 percent since his time in East Lansing.
The newly acquired minutes by Payne should come with a sense of cautionary excitement from the green and white faithful as the inexperienced big man showed flashes of athleticism in his freshman season that left many drooling at his potential, but also showed a tendency to make many of the mistakes that are expected of a big man who has yet to fully grow into his size and learn to utilize all of his physical gifts. While the opportunity for a lot of playing time may be a little premature for the big man it will only benefit him in the long run as the Spartans look for him to fill that role for potentially the next three seasons.
Another storyline for Spartan fans to keep an eye on will be the debut of highly touted Freshman forward Branden Dawson. The highest-rated member of the incoming Green and White recruiting class, The McDonalds All-American will likely start in his first college contest, and enters with high expectations after impressing many with his leaping ability in the McDonalds Dunk Contest prior to the season.
It will be interesting to see just how much time Tom Izzo gives the talented youngster on a team that is already lacking in the age department, but if he comes out hot it's safe to say he won't be seeing much pine. The 6'6" forward out of Gary, IN is already being touted as one of Izzo's best recruits in years before even stepping foot on a college floor, and Dawson will clearly have high expectations to live up to.
The good news for Sparty is that Dawson possesses the skill set to do just that. Just watch the YouTube videos.
The clear favorite in this one is Roy Williams squad from Chapel Hill, but the added variable that is their aquatic surroundings should serve to close the gap some between these two, and we should be treated to some good competition amidst the Pacific backdrop.
While the defensive prowess for either team shouldn’t be affected much by the conditions it will be interesting to see how long it takes each squad to gain their bearings offensively with the earth (or water) literally moving beneath their feet. It’s hard to imagine either group shooting a high percentage outside of 12-feet under the circumstances, so look for the team that establishes themselves in the paint early on both sides of the ball to come away victorious in this early season battle between perennial powerhouses.