Michigan State will reload with an intriguing blend of talented newcomers in the backcourt and benefit from proven warriors in the frontcourt. Look for the Spartans to extend their streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and reside in the upper half of the Big Ten, but Tom Izzo will have to wait a year or two for a run at a seventh Final Four.
The Spartans lose talented but enigmatic guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers from last year’s team, which was a preseason top-10 squad but finished with more losses (15) than any Michigan State team since Izzo’s first season as head coach in 1996.
“I have enjoyed this team more, already,” Izzo says. “We have some talent, some young guys who want to learn, want to get better. They are going to listen. They are going to be grittier. I think we are going to have better leadership and togetherness.”
Senior power forward Draymond Green has played in a pair of Final Fours and is driven to make the Spartans a national factor again. He will need sophomore combo guard Keith Appling and sophomore post player Adreian Payne to elevate their games to star status. Both are capable of it. Major contributions are likely from freshman forward Branden Dawson and skillful guard Brandon Wood, a senior one-year transfer from Valparaiso.
Key Spartans Stat: 10
Michigan State has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in 10 of the last 14 seasons.
Green is one of the best all-around power forwards in the college game. With crafty finishing ability around the rim, and 36.6 percent accuracy from 3-point range, he causes matchup problems and can deliver the drive and dish. The two-time third-team All-Big Ten honoree has 18 career double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles. He needs to give better effort away from the ball.
“He has to be better defensively,” Izzo says. “That’s a big key. Last year we had to play him too many minutes. He is in better shape now.”
Delvon Roe, a gifted power forward who battled injuries throughout his career in East Lansing, was forced to retire from basketball in September due to ongoing issues with his knees. Roe had 73 career starts. His toughness and experience will be sorely missed.
The Spartans need the tall and athletic Payne to tap into his immense talent. At 6'10", Payne can score in the post, or facing up with style and grace. He was slowed by a shoulder injury prior to his freshman year but is capable of a major breakthrough. With Roe no longer able to play, the pressure is on Payne to produce.
“I think Payne is going to be much improved,” Izzo says. “He has worked his tail off. He’s into it.”
Wide-bodied junior Derrick Nix started for the 2010 Final Four team but saw his role reduced as he put on bad weight. He’s tough, smart and strong, with good moves and touch when in deep, and that’s when he has been overweight. The 2011-12 version of Nix might stun people, if he maintains better physical condition.
Appling deferred to veterans last year, but he will put his combo guard gifts on display as a sophomore. He can run the point, or swing to the 2 and light it up from range. He will benefit from summer experience with Team USA’s U19 squad.
Newcomers Travis Trice and Wood will audition as point guards. If one (or both) is adept at running the team, that could enable Appling to do more on the wing.
Wood, a good leaper who can shoot from 3-point range, averaged 16.7 points last year as a first-team All-Horizon League selection at Valparaiso. Dawson, a McDonald’s All-American, might be the best rebounding wing player Izzo has ever signed.
“I think Trice and Dawson are going to help us immediately,” Izzo says.
Although the Spartans are relying on several unproven ingredients, their potential ceiling is still high, allowing Michigan State fans legitimate reasons to dream.
“I haven’t had this many questions and x-factors in a season in the last 12 or 13 years,” Izzo says. “There are a lot of unknowns. Who is going to be the point now? Is he going to adapt? If Nix keeps his weight down, if the other guys grow like I think they will — Adreian Payne especially — I think we have a chance to be real good. If they don’t, we’ll be a decent team and that will be it.”
Big Ten Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out