Top 25 Countdown: No. 12 Michigan State Spartans

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-8, 13-5 Big Ten (t-1st); Lost in the Sweet 16 to Louisville

Head Coach: Tom Izzo

Key Losses: Draymond Green, Brandon Wood, Austin Thornton

Newcomers: Gary Harris, Matt Costello, Denzel Valentine, Kenny Kaminski

Projected Lineup:

G: Keith Appling, Jr.
G: Gary Harris, Fr.
F: Branden Dawson, So.
F: Derrick Nix, Sr.
C: Adreian Payne, Jr.
Bench: Travis Trice, So.; Alex Gauna, So.; Matt Costello, Fr.; Brandon Kearney, So.; Russell Byrd, So.; Denzel Valentive, Fr.

Outlook: Michigan State entered the 2010-2011 season with all kinds of hype and produced one of the most disappointing seasons in Spartan history. They finished 19-15 on the year, 9-9 in league play and somehow managed to squeeze an NCAA tournament bid out of it. After some significant roster turnover heading into last season, the Spartans weren’t expected to be much more than mediocre … and they went out and won a share of the Big Ten regular season title (after blowing a two game lead with two games left), the Big Ten tournament title and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (Hurray, accurate preseason projections!)

And this season?

Well, expectations are kind of in the middle. The Spartans are expected to be a contender in the Big Ten, but they aren’t a favorite. Indiana is. It’s tough to even label them a contender for the title with Michigan and Ohio State in the conference as well. They’re also a borderline top ten team, as their ranking in this poll will show you, but they aren’t really talked about as a Final Four contender beyond the obvious “never bet against Izzo” tourney-meme.

The one thing we do know about this group is that they have the kind of makeup that Izzo usually has success with.

It starts in the front court, where the Spartans will be as big and physical as anyone. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix spent last season rotating at the center spot, playing along side Draymond Green, but with Green off to the professional ranks, Izzo’s two biggest big men will see a lot of shared court time. Payne and Nix are complete contrasts on the court. Where Payne has length and athleticism for days, Nix is a bully on the block that’s strong as an ox but struggles to keep his weight down.

Joining them up front is sophomore Branden Dawson, who was having an excellent freshman season before he tore his ACL in March. The good news? Dawson has recovered incredibly quickly from the surgery and should be back to his old form, which is good news for this group. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Dawson is aggressive when attacking the basket — and the back boards — and will give Izzo a trio of tough, physical front court players. Exactly like the Tom Izzo teams of old. Sophomore Alex Gauna and freshman Matt Costello will round out the front court rotation, although Dawson might also be able to slide over and play the four spot if necessary.

The back court is where the question marks will lie. As well as that front court trio fits in with what classic Michigan State teams look like, the key centers around the ability of the back court to score, because offensive creativity is not exactly a strong suit for that group.

The most important player will be Keith Appling. Appling is more of a natural scoring guard, but he was forced to move into the point guard role last season due to the dismissal of Korie Lucious. It took him awhile to get adjusted to the position, but with a year under his belt, the Spartans are expecting big things out of him. Expect his scoring numbers (11.9 ppg last season) to increase, while his assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7:1) improves and his three-point shooting (25.0% last year, versus 41.0% as a freshman) both improve. Appling’s load will be lessened by Travis Trice, a sophomore point guard that was a pleasant surprise last year. He battled a pretty vicious virus over the summer, however, which caused him to lose some weight and conditioning.

Freshman Gary Harris could end up being this team’s x-factor. A five-star recruit, Harris is an athletic, 6-foot-4 slasher known for his aggressiveness, his ability to score off the dribble and his defensive aggressiveness. If he can prove to be a consistent scorer from the perimeter, a guy that can compete for all-league honors, Michigan State could have some real upside this season. Sophomore Brandan Kearney and freshman Denzel Valentine are bigger, more versatile guards, while Russell Byrd is a 6-foot-7 shooter whose recurring foot issues may end up forcing him into a limited role.

Predictions?: Best case scenario? Assuming Appling and Harris excel in the back court, Dawson is fully recovered from his injury and more advanced offensively, and Nix and Payne have learned how to play together on the front line, Michigan State has the makings of a team that can make noise in the league and a run in the tournament. But those are a lot of ‘ifs’ that need to work out well. There’s no guarantee that happens. Whether or not it does, the Spartans are going to play a tough, physical brand of basketball and compete every night. A top four finish in the Big Ten sounds about right.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Gonzaga’s Mark Few named AP Coach of the Year

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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has added to his program’s banner season with an individual award, being named AP Coach of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

Few led the Bulldogs to their first Final Four. The Zags enter the national semifinal with a 36-1 record. Up until Feb. 25, they were flirting with a perfect season. A loss to BYU is currently the only blemish on their season.

Few also won his 500th career game during the course of the 2016-17 season. Since 2014, two coaches from outside the major conferences have earned his honor. Gregg Marshall was named AP Coach of the Year in 2014 after leading the Shockers to a perfect regular season.

This was a very competitive race this season. Sean Miller lost two players expected to be key pieces this season — and had Allonzo Trier miss 19 games — but guided Arizona to the Pac-12 Tournament championship. Jay Wright led Villanova to another Big East title despite two cornerstone pieces — Ryan Arcidiancono and Daniel Ochefu — gone from last season’s national championship team. For a while, Baylor’s Scott Drew seemed to be the favorite. The Bears didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason top-25 poll but went on to earn a No. 1 ranking.

Few’s season continues on Saturday against South Carolina.

Frank Mason is named AP Player of the Year

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Kansas point guard Frank Mason III was named the AP Player of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

The senior floor general for the Jayhawks headlined the AP All-American team, which included UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, Villanova Swingman Josh Hart, Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan and North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson.

Mason averaged 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and shot 49 percent from behind the 3-point line during the 2016-17 season. He helped guide Kansas to its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title.

He becomes the fourth senior in a row to win the award, preceded by Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminksy and Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

He had previously been named player of the year by NBC Sports.

TJ Leaf declares for the 2017 NBA Draft

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UCLA freshman forward TJ Leaf announced he is declaring for the 2017 NBA Draft on Thursday afternoon.

The 6-foot-10 Leaf averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. His shooting numbers were also impressive, connecting on 62 percent of his field goals, including 27-of-58 from beyond the 3-point arc.

This news comes six days after Lonzo Ball officially announced he had played his last game at UCLA. Neither move is shocking, with Ball in the running for the No. 1 overall pick and Leaf also pegged as a first round selection.

The Bruins will have quite a bit of turnover next season with guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton exhausting their eligibility. UCLA head coach Steve Alford has a six-man recruiting class set to come in to help replenish the roster. It’s led by versatile forward Kris Wilkes, point guard Jaylen Hands, and big men Cody Riley and Jalen Hill.

CBT Fancast: Catching up with famous Final Four fans: Adam Morrison, Marcus Paige, Neil Everett

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For today’s episode, I spoke with the famous fans of the programs in the Final Four, from the greatest player in Gonzaga history to the almost-star of last year’s Final Four to the most famous dual Gonzaga and Oregon fan in the world.

Sindarius Thornwell misses practice on Thursday

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Sindarius Thornwell has been the best player in the NCAA tournament to date, yet he was not in the building on Thursday when the South Carolina Gamecocks practiced and he was nowhere to be found during South Carolina’s media availability.

A school spokeswoman told reporters that Thornwell was back at the hotel, that he was sick and resting.

Thornwell is averaging 25.7 points in four games in the NCAA tournament. He’s been sensational. If he’s not at his best this weekend, that’s a massive blow for South Carolina’s chances of getting to a national title game, but South Carolina head coach Frank Martin doesn’t seem too concerned.

“I’ve got a bug myself. Luckily I don’t have to play,” Martin said. “He had a little body temperature last night when we landed. And he was a little better this morning. But I kind of told our trainer, just feed him fluids, do what doctors do and let him rest rather than stress him right now. He’s our most intelligent player. And I don’t mean to say that demeaning the other guys. He understands basketball at a high, high level, he doesn’t need to be on the practice court to understand what we’re doing.”