This preview and more on Michigan State and the Big Ten are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
No. 4 Michigan State Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-9 (13-5 Big Ten)
Postseason: NCAA Sweet 16
Coach: Tom Izzo (439-178 at Michigan State)
Big Ten projection: First
Postseason projection: NCAA Final Four
There have been years when Tom Izzo went into a season believing his team was not as good as its preseason hype. This is not one of those years.
“Some years you are maybe not quite as good as the top-10, 12 or 15 that we have been, but the program gets rated that high on perception,” Izzo says. “This year I think the team gets rated on its own merit, and it deserves to be up there. I expect us to be good most years, and this year we have a chance to be real good.”
The Spartans are nicely outfitted to add to Izzo’s collection of banners in the Breslin Center rafters, which includes seven Big Ten titles and six Final Fours.
“We have some depth. We have some shooters. We have some athletes. We have some size, and we have guys who have been there, done that, and played in big games, and that’s critical,” Izzo says. “We have a good team, and whether it will be a great team will depend on injuries and leadership. But with Adreian Payne and Gary Harris coming back, we have put ourselves in a chance to do big things.”
Izzo seems a little more confident than usual. The Big Ten and nation would be wise to take notice.
Payne turned down possible first-round NBA Draft status to return for his senior year and chase championships. He has blossomed into a fine long-range shooter as a pick-and-pop power forward (38 percent from deep) and an explosive finisher. He is the Big Ten’s leading returning rebounder.
Sophomore Matt Costello is ready to prove he can hang as a role-playing Big Ten center. He waited his turn behind Payne and Derrick Nix and will now bring his solid low-post package, good athleticism and a functional frame to the lane. Big junior Alex Gauna offers size and a nice, confident shot release. Freshman Gavin Schilling impressed teammates with his rebounding during the summer.
Harris was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013 but will be a bigger, better all-around player this season. Widely regarded as a probable NBA Lottery pick whenever he opts to turn pro, Harris will be stronger to the hole as a sophomore, having added a noticeable layer of muscle to what was already a mature physique.
Harris was slowed by shoulder issues for the last half of his freshman year but still shot a sparkling 41 percent from long range. The shoulder problems limited him on the glass and on the break. Now, Izzo is expecting Harris to become one of the best rebounding guards he has ever coached, and one of his better defenders.
Senior point guard Keith Appling led Michigan State in scoring a year ago and now needs to be the leader in the locker room. His decision-making improved as a junior. If he can dial in his sporadic perimeter shooting, he might provide the final element needed to make the Spartans a threat to win Izzo’s second national title..
Izzo wants Branden Dawson at the 3 this year. The thick, athletic junior is back to full horsepower for the first time in 18 months, following recovery from a freshman knee injury. Dawson is not much of a shooter, but he can play small forward with physicality.
Valuable sophomore Denzel Valentine is a good rebounder and tremendous passer with nice size at the wing. Fully healthy for the first time as a collegian, quick Travis Trice offers quality shooting range and true combo guard skills off the bench. Junior Russell Byrd hasn’t lived up to his promise as a wing sniper.
After losing to Duke in the Jabari Parker chase, the Spartans signed rugged 6-9 power forward Gavin Schilling and 6-4 wing Alvin Ellis. Ellis, a former Minnesota verbal, may need a redshirt year to gain strength. Skill-wise, he is comparable to outgoing Spartan transfer Brandan Kearney. Schilling is young for his class, improving steadily and could earn a role off the bench.
Factoid: 0. No player who has signed with Tom Izzo as a four-year recruit and finished his senior season at Michigan State has missed out on the Final Four.
With NBA talent inside and out, a senior point guard, excellent shooting at the 2 and the 4, and solid skill and size off the bench, Michigan State heads into the season nicely equipped. The Spartans should be better and much healthier than last year’s team, which finished a game out of first place in the Big Ten and advanced to its second straight Sweet 16. Meanwhile, you know the Spartans will defend and rebound.
“We had our best summer ever, by far, in terms of getting guys healthy and staying healthy,” Izzo says. “Guys are driven to make amends.”
2013-14 Preseason Top 25
4. Michigan State
8. Oklahoma State
10. North Carolina
11. Ohio State
14. New Mexico
15. Notre Dame
25. Wichita State