staff, October 30, 2013

Michigan State won 27 games last year, the 5th time in 6 years it's won at least that many.

But more is at stake this year. Below, I'll look at whether Tom Izzo can get back to the mountaintop.

2013 Record: 27-9 (13-5)
Conference Offensive Efficiency: 1.06 (3rd)
Conference Defensive Efficiency: 0.97 (3rd)
Percentage of Conference Minutes Returning: 86
Percentage of Conference Minutes Played by Returning Freshmen: 29

The Streak-Every four-year player that Tom Izzo has recruited, has played in at least one Final Four. Michigan State fans have this factoid locked and loaded for any debates about where Izzo ranks on the all-time coaching hierarchy.

This season, The Streak is once again in jeopardy. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are both seniors this season, and neither has made it to basketball?s final weekend. That?s the bad news. The good news is that this is the best on-paper Michigan State team in quite some time. The only offseason loss is departed senior Derrick Nix. Nix was a capable finisher and rebounder, but he?s entirely replaceable. Payne figures to increase his minutes to as many as his foul-prone ways will allow, and the Spartans have plenty of depth in the frontcourt, particularly if sophomore Matt Costello progresses.

This highlights another strength of this team, in that it?s not just a bunch of juniors becoming seniors. Last year?s MSU squad featured a lot of freshmen minutes, mostly featuring Costello, Denzel Valentine, and most importantly, Gary Harris, who opted to come back to East Lansing for his sophomore season. Harris was almost certainly a lottery pick had he entered the 2013 NBA draft, but instead he?ll likely lead a top-5 team to a deep Tournament run.

Whether that decision pays off professionally probably depends on how much ballhandling skill Harris can show this season. Last year (in which Harris played all season with a bum shoulder) he was much more of a spot-up shooter than many expected when he committed to the Spartans. And while he was great in that role (41 percent on three-pointers), he?s a much more versatile player than that. Expect more free throws and assists this year.

Valentine is another rising sophomore, and one who showed all sorts of potential mixed in with inefficient play. A forward that can post a 22.3 assist rate? Great. That 31.4 turnover rate? Not so great. Converting 54 percent of two-point attempts? Excellent. That 28 percent on threes? Blech. Of course, this is a typical stat sheet for a freshman. If Valentine can keep the positives while improving the negatives, he can be a star as soon as this season. That said, with so many weapons, he?ll likely continue to be a role player for another year.

Ultimately though, Michigan State will go as far as its two seniors will take them. Appling will be in his third season as MSU?s point guard, but he?s yet to lead the team in assist rate. He might not again this year, with Harris and Valentine helping to shoulder the playmaking load. And frankly, that?s not a priority. What would be welcome, however, is a return to Appling?s sharpshooting ways, back when he was a freshman two-guard (eFG of 55.5). The hope is that without having to create so much for others, he?ll be able to focus more on his own scoring.

The career of Adreian Payne has kind of been like a bad Japanese monster movie. The kind where, in the final scene, the all-powerful monster unleashes a fire-breathing capability that demolishes its opponent in an instant. Why didn?t he do that in the first 15 minutes of the film? Did he forget that he could do that?

That?s Payne. He?s been a freakish athlete for a guy standing 6-10 since he was a freshman. He?s always had a nice touch on his shots, but seemed to struggle with his confidence early on. And up until late January in 2013, he had attempted all of 7 three-pointers in his career (making four). Then, against Indiana, Payne?s 18-point effort against Indiana included 3-4 shooting from beyond the arc. From that night on, Payne attempted 38 three-pointers over the next 2 months. He also became much more of a go-to player over that span, averaging a usage of 22.6. Slowly but surely, Payne is realizing he can breathe fire out of his mouth.

Stylistically, this is going to be nothing new. State will control the glass on both ends, opt for offensive rebounds over 3s, and make the paint inhospitable for opposing offenses. Turnovers will be a slight issue, but I emphasize slight because a turnover-forcing defense in the Big Ten has gone the way of the pro-style offense in college football. They?ll run lots of sets and, one hopes, they might even show some of that winged-attack fastbreaking we last saw in 2005.

On paper, it?s all good enough to keep The Streak alive.