For the better part of the last two decades, the Michigan State Spartans have consistently been one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten Conference. While in some seasons the Spartans don’t quite have a top notch team, they still tend to put up more than a fight and they rarely stay down for long.
A lot of the credit for that belongs to head coach Tom Izzo for consistently building a tough, hard-nosed basketball team year in and year out. He regularly picks up top talent on the recruiting trail and molds them into a solid team. The last two trips to the Final Four in 2009 and 2010 speak to that.
We continue our preseason look at the teams of the Big Ten with one of the more visible of the conference’s basketball teams: the Michigan State Spartans.
I doubt there was any fanbase in the country more disappointed last season than Spartan fans. After two straight Final Four appearances, and with a team loaded with veteren talant in the backcourt, the Spartans limped home to a 19-15 record including a 9-9 conference record. That’s the fewest wins they’ve had since the 03-04 season when they went 18-12 and lost in the first round of the tournament. Clearly Michigan State fans have a reason to expect better.
Part of the reason for this sudden reversal was the complete meltdown of that very veteren backcourt. Chris Allen (dismissed) and Korie Lucious (suspended for the season) both transfered to Iowa State early in the season and depleted the experienced backcourt depth. Couple that with Durrell Summers not living up to his expectations, and Kalin Lucas underperforming all season, and you have a recipe for a disaster. Worse than that, the usually potent and powerful Michigan State front court was a shadow of its former self. Draymond Green and Delvon Roe struggled desperately the entire year to carry the team on their own.
Izzo has a very particular mentality for how his teams should play basketball. This quote from early last season after a tough loss to Syracuse gets at Izzo’s thoughts perfectly,
We didn’t come early inside and let them dominate on the boards. We turned into a pretty-boy jump-shooting team instead of the blue-collar, fist-fighting team we should be.
Our guys inside weren’t covering anybody and that’s solely on me. If the team doesn’t play hard enough and is tough enough that’s the coach’s fault and we’ll fix that…
To that end, there is only one answer for the player who is going to be most critical to MSU’s chances this year. Senior Forward Draymond Green will have to be at the peak of his game to make up for what will be a very inexperienced backcourt this season. Green is a tough inside player and great rebounder who did it all for Michigan State last year leading the team in rebounds, assists, and steals while coming in second in points scored and free throws made. His role will be even more important now that Delvon Roe, his buddy underneath, has chosen to end his career.
New Player to Keep an Eye on:
This year’s Spartan recruiting class was a solid one, and at the top of the list is Small Forward Branden Dawson. Dawson is a 6’6″, 220 McDonald’s All-American ranked #5 at his position, and #5 in his region by ESPN. He’s a tough player on both ends of the court, and is a physical inside player. He’s a big rebounder, and a threat to score both when posted up inside, or when he uses his quickness in transition. Given his size, you would expect him to be more of a wing style player, but Dawson plays much more of a Power Forward style game, something that Izzo probably adores. He could stand to work on his perimeter shot to improve his game, but as is he will certainly see playing time for the Spartans.
Big Games this Season:
If you know Izzo, then you know that he doesn’t like scheduling a pretty-boy namby-pamby preseason lineup. This year he pulled all the stops by playing North Carolina on November 11th on the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier at the Naval Base in San Diego. Four days later, the Spartans will play Duke in Madison Square Gardens. The Spartans also play Florida State at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challange. They follow that up a couple weeks later with Gonzaga on the road to round out the toughest challenges in the preseason.
Outlook for the Season:
It’s hard to say how the Spartans will respond after last year’s relatively pathetic showing. A lot could hinge on how the team performs in their first two games of the season. But, those games could also be fantastic teaching moments for the team as a whole and ultimately make them stronger going into the meat of the schedule.
It is true that with an inexperienced backcourt, the Spartans will struggle at times with some of the more quality teams on their schedule. They’ll probably lose their first two, but then win out heading into the Big Ten regular season.
Where they’ll finish:
If Keith Appling can prove that he’s up to the task of being a solid ball distributor and floor general for Izzo, this team may surprise some people. That will also depend on the play of the frontcourt, if they can gel sufficiently and be as tough as Izzo expects them to be. If they continue to not play tough down low, or if the frontcourt doesn’t figure out what they need to do early enough, that could portend another long season.
No one expects that from an Izzo coached team, though. The Spartans will improve this year in Big Ten play. I see about 12 wins on their schedule with two others being winnable, but tough, matchups. Expect them to go around 13-5 in conference and finish around 4th in the league overall.