Tom Izzo

2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 1 Michigan State Spartans

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 27-9, 13-5 Big Ten (t-2nd); Lost to Duke in the Sweet 16

Head Coach: Tom Izzo (19th season at Michigan State: 437-176 overall, 209-95 Big Ten)

Key Losses: Derrick Nix, Brandon Kearney

Newcomers: Gavin Schilling, Alvin Ellis

Projected Lineup

G: Keith Appling, Sr.
G: Gary Harris, So.
F: Denzel Valentine, So.
F: Branden Dawson, Jr.
C: Adreian Payne, Sr.
Bench: Travis Trice, Jr.; Gavin Schilling, Fr.; Alex Gauna, Jr.; Russell Byrd, Jr.; Kenny Kaminiski, Fr.; Matt Costello, So.

They’ll be good because …: Beyond the fact they have Tom Izzo as their head coach, this group is finally going to be healthy this season. Most importantly, Gary Harris is going to look like Gary Harris. Last season, Izzo’s star recruit missed the first two games of the year before deciding to grit his way through a painful injury to his left shoulder that made it tough for him to drive to his right and forced him to settle for being a jump-shooter. He’s good in that role; he’s an all-american at full strength, and he’ll be at full strength when the season kicks off in exactly one week.

Harris isn’t the only guy that used his time off to heal up. Branden Dawson rushed his way back from a torn ACL that he suffered at the end of his freshman season. He was, technically, healthy, but a summer spent rehabbing meant that he didn’t get a chance to develop his game. This offseason he did. The same can be said for Travis Trice, who has dealt with a myriad of issues — a brain infection, a couple of concussions, a broken nose — in the last 15 months. With those three at full strength, the Spartans get that much scarier.

AP photo

But they might disappoint because …: The Spartans have some question marks with two of their most important players this season. Let’s start with Keith Appling, a former McDonald’s all-american that has spent most of the past two seasons trying to make the transition into being a full-time point guard. He’s had some success, averaging 13.3 points and 3.3 assists last year, but the consistency just hasn’t been there. He’s not a natural playmaker; his first inclination is, and always has been, to score, and his struggles led to some of Michigan State’s worst performances a season ago. Will he finally embrace the role that Izzo is asking him to play this season?

The other issue is Adreian Payne. Payne shot up NBA Draft boards this past season thanks to some terrific performances in a couple of Michigan State’s biggest games, and with his ridiculous athleticism and ability to step out and hit threes, the potential is there to warrant a first round pick come June. But Payne has made a career out of being inconsistent. He’s coming off of a junior season where he averaged all of 10.5 points and 7.6 boards, and it was the first time in his tenure in East Lansing where he came anywhere near living up to his ability. This is the guy that the Spartans are relying on to be an all-american? Maybe it finally clicked for Payne this summer. Maybe he’ll come out and average 15 points, 10 boards, 3 blocks and shoot 44% from three. But he wasn’t a freshman last year. He was a junior. Old habits die hard, you know?

Outlook: Tom Izzo does what he can to downplay the expectations that have been placed on his team this season, but there’s no denying the fact that the Spartans are going to enter the year as the favorite to win the Big Ten and one of a handful of teams expected to be competing for a national title come March. They have a potential first-team all-american on the roster in Harris. They have another potential first round pick in Payne. Dawson and Denzel Valentine make up a versatile set of forwards, and Appling has plenty of raw ability. Throw in a healthy Trice and a handful of back up big men that, at the very least, will provide Izzo with 10-15 fouls in the paint, and Michigan State is loaded on paper.

But in order for the Spartans to live up to those expectations, they are relying on a number of guys to make an improvement. Appling needs to be a better point guard. Harris and Dawson need to improve now that they’re healthy. Payne needs to be more consistent. That’s a lot of moving parts, meaning that 80% of Izzo’s starting lineup head into the season as an ‘if’.

Having said all of that, keep in mind that Michigan State returns all but one contributor from a team that finished tied for second in the loaded Big Ten and spent most of the year ranked in the top ten. ‘If’ all of those ‘ifs’ work out, ‘if’ Michigan State really is that much better than they were a season ago, that’s a scary thought.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.