The Michigan State Spartans had a surprising run to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2011-12 but a bitter end in the sweet 16 that more resembled the team most people thought they would be.
The success of that team revolved around the departed Senior Draymond Green, a slimmed down Derrik Nix, Sophmore guard Keith Appling and star Freshman, Branden Dawson who was a rebounding machine before injuring his knee.
An unranked team prior to the 2011-12 season that went on to a #1 seed had followed up a #2 preseason ranking in 2010-11 that was a team that struggled to even make the tournament. So the #14 preseason ranking this season may be more accurate than either of the previous two seasons as this team will be good, compete for another B1G Championship. And another Final Four run, that is never out of the question when Tom Izzo is running the show.
Izzo has hinted at what his starting line up will look like on opening night this season, with Appling running the point, Dawson, Nix and Adrian Payne at the forward positions and star Freshman, Gary Harris at shooting guard.
The ability that Nix has to work inside with Payne should give the athleticism of Appling, Dawson and Harris more than enough room to work and create easy baskets in transition and in the set offense, but also, Payne’s improved three point shooting will force bigger defenders out of the paint for additional easy baskets.
Off the bench, Izzo has plenty of flexibility, with Travis Trice running the point so smoothly as a Freshman last year and finally recovering from his foot injury he can give Appling a breather. But, he can play next to Appling as well and Appling can shift over to shooting guard and be on the floor at the same time as Trice.
Also off the bench to run the point is another Freshman, Denzel Valentine, a 6’5″ son of a coach (like Trice) that sees the floor better than most Freshman and has an amazing ability to find the open man in transition and push the ball.
With Nix and Payne being able to play at the same time this year it means that Izzo will be counting on Alex Guana for more than 3 minutes a game in 2012-13 and will need another Freshman, Matt Costello to step up and play important minutes. Costello has been recieving praise during camp for his athleticism, defense, rebounding and outside shooting, which sounds like a poor man’s Payne. This could allow for some extended periods of rest for Payne, who has continually had conditioning problems since arriving in East Lansing, even though he says they are behind him.
The wild card in the front court is oft injured red shirt Sophomore Russel Byrd. Byrd is allegedly finally over all his foot/leg injuries and surgeries, can shoot the lights out, at 6’7″, has size and was named a Captain of the team, a big surprise to most people. If he can step in and provide 7-10 points per game off the bench, shooting from the outside this team could look just like many of the Izzo Final Four teams in the past.
Also staying under the radar is Sophomore guard Branden Kearney, who was expected to red shirt last year but who’s hard work and effort on the defensive side of the ball in practice forced Izzo’s hand. He was a nice contributor as a stopper of the other team’s top guard in situational minutes last year.
In typical Tom Izzo fashion, this team is built to play hard, defend their own end, rebound well and are very deep off the bench. Gary Harris is a potential one and done player, jumping into the NBA next year and if not for the knee injury last year, Dawson could have been too, and could be gone after this year too.
This next half decade from Izzo should be different than the previous decade. He has routinely avoided recruiting the very top tier talent due to feeling “burned” by Zach Randolph leaving after just one year, but he has made statements about his future, the program becoming elite and knowing that those one and done players can make this program elite.
Dawson, Harris, the recruiting of Jabari Parker for 2013’s class and the recruiting of 2014 players Cliff Alexander, Jahlil Okefor and Tyus Jones proves Izzo is looking for a few more Final Fours, B1G Championships and at least one more National Championship before hanging his whistle up.
If this occurs Izzo will retire knowing he was able to take a middle of the road basketball program and turn them into an elite program, one of the most successful runs in any 20 year span of college basketball and be a Hall of Fame college basketball coach.