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.

Koby McEwen transferring to Marquette

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Steve Wojciechowski added a significant piece to his 2019-20 team over the weekend.

Koby McEwen announced his intention to transfer to Marquette from Utah State late Sunday evening.

“I would like to thank God, my family, inner circle and all the schools/coaches that recruited me during this process!” McEwen tweeted. “With that being said, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be furthering my college career at Marquette University.”

McEwen picked the Golden Eagles over fellow finalists Creighton and Grand Canyon after he decided to transfer when the Aggies announced South Dakota coach Craig Smith was taking over the program last month. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

After sitting out the upcoming season, McEwen will have to years of eligibility remaining. Marquette went 21-14 last season, but missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in Wojciechowski’s four years in Milwaukee.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?

North Carolina’s Luke Maye declaring for NBA draft without hiring agent

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina junior Luke Maye has declared for the NBA draft but isn’t hiring an agent.

The 6-foot-8 forward was a third-team Associated Press All-American after averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most improved player after increasing his scoring average by 11.4 points from his sophomore to junior seasons.

Coach Roy Williams says in a statement that it’s ”a great opportunity” for Maye to work out for NBA teams and get feedback on what to improve in his game.

The deadline for college players to declare early for the draft was Sunday night. Players who don’t hire an agent can maintain their college eligibility as long as they withdraw by May 30, which is 10 days after the NBA draft combine.