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Keith Appling among those trying to fill void left by Draymond Green
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 10 Michigan State.
Michigan State is ramping up its depth, quickness and versatility for life after Draymond Green. When Tom Izzo is equipped in these areas, his Spartans usually make a run at the Final Four. Michigan State has the horsepower to make that type of run in 2013, but this year’s go-to scorers are unproven.
Izzo believes leadership is the biggest question mark, in the wake of Green’s graduation.
“We’ve been talking about leadership and working on it every single day in the offseason,” Izzo says. “It’s critical. I think we’ll have guys come around in that area.”
The Spartans were expected to be hard-pressed to earn a 15th straight NCAA Tournament bid in 2012. Michigan State surprised by making the NCAAs as a No. 1 seed and advancing to Izzo’s 10th Sweet 16 as Big Ten tri-champion. Some said it was one of Izzo’s best coaching jobs ever.
“But they said it was one of my worst, the year before,” Izzo says. “So we’ll see where that takes us this year. I think we’ll be faster, and be able to go with big lineups, or play small.”
Branden Dawson will be back at or near 100 percent health after missing the end of last season with a torn ACL. He is a strong presence as a thick wing. A terrific rebounder with breakneck speed and power in transition, Dawson is hoping to shoot better after reworking his mechanics. Dawson will expand his role and get occasional work as a quick 4 in order to complement a good group of bigs. Look for him to develop into a defensive stopper at the 2 through 4 positions.
Wide-bodied center Derrick Nix is the team’s only senior. In the best shape of his career, Nix will be the strongest player in the Big Ten. He and tag-team partner Adreian Payne split time last year yet never played simultaneously. They will have to play together this year, and for long stints, although both have had conditioning questions in the past — Nix due to weight, and Payne due to a lung condition.
Nix and Payne are efficient low-post scorers on offense, and will get more touches and shots this year. Izzo wants more range rebounds from them. Payne will stretch his role to include face-up shooting at the 4. A good athlete at 6-10, he has untapped shooting ability, out to 18 feet.
Freshman Matt Costello and sophomore Alex Gauna have the size and skill to round out a nice four-man rotation inside. Gauna has quality post moves and shooting ability.
Related: Izzo tops Athlon national coach rankings
Keith Appling is back to shooting like he did as a freshman when he led the team with 41 percent accuracy from 3-point range. He slumped last season but corrected things with more arch and tireless work in the offseason. He will vie for All-Big Ten honors.
The stock-on-the-rise tandem of Appling and sophomore Travis Trice will continue to trade off at the point and the 2. Either can run the show, or score from deep off the catch-and-shoot. Trice, a pleasant surprise last year, missed time and lost weight in the offseason due to a mysterious virus, but he will be back near top form this fall.
Gary Harris will be one of the best freshmen in the Big Ten. The McDonald’s All-American brings jet fuel to the transition game, on the push or as a lane-runner. His shooting range and ability to score through contact were a surprise in summer workouts. His bench press numbers are among the best ever for a Spartan freshman.
Brandan Kearney and Russell Byrd are work-in-progress talents. Kearney is a well-rounded contributor whose slash-to-pass game will benefit from improved bulk. Izzo is hoping Byrd will become a shooting threat as a wing and perhaps a stretch 4, if a chronic foot injury doesn’t recur. Byrd’s defense is a question.
Freshman Denzel Valentine is quickly becoming an Izzo favorite with his tremendous passing ability and hungry rebounding ethic, on a strong 6-5 frame.
Michigan State is low on household names, other than Izzo. But team chemistry is good, and Izzo has a penchant for forming blue-collar battlers into over-achieving winners. The Spartans will go 11 deep with guys who will buy in on defense and thrive in Izzo’s transition system. Michigan State will contend for Izzo’s eighth Big Ten title and become increasingly dangerous while developing leadership, rebounding and go-to scorers.