2012-13 preseason Top 25

Final Four - Ohio State v Kansas

Top 25 Countdown: No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes

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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: 31-8, 13-5 Big Ten (t-1st); Lost in the Final Four to Kansas

Head Coach: Thad Matta

Key Losses: Jared Sullinger, William Buford

Newcomers: Amedeo Della Valle

Projected Lineup:

G: Aaron Craft, Jr.
G: Lenzelle Smith Jr, Jr.
F: Sam Thompson, So.
F: Deshaun Thomas, Jr.
C: Amir Williams, So.
Bench: LaQuinton Ross, So.; Evan Ravenel, Sr., Shannon Scott, So.

Outlook: Thad Matta’s team is going to have their work cut out for them this season. Not only are they losing William Buford, who spent the last four seasons as one of the nation’s most consistently underrated wing scorers, but Jared Sullinger also made the decision to head to the NBA. And as much as it will hurt to lose a guy that averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, what will be even more difficult for the Buckeyes to adjust to is not having a post presence that commands a double-team every single time he touches the ball.

The past two years, everything Ohio State has done offensively was built around Sullinger’s presence on the blocks. It will be quite the adjustment without him.

That’s not to say that Ohio State doesn’t have any talent left on their roster, because that certainly isn’t the case. In fact, depending on where you are looking, Matta has two preseason all-americans at his disposal.

The first name is one that everyone in the country should be familiar with by now: Aaron Craft. Craft has spent two his first two years in Columbus reminding us what the point guard position used to be played like. He’s a pretty good shooter, he’s a capable penetrator and he’s certainly able to create shots off the dribble, but his real strength is two-fold — Craft is an absolutely tenacious on-the-ball defender, to the point that he can change a game with the way that he applies ball-pressure, and he’s an ideal facilitator. Not to be overly cliche, but Craft is a coach on the floor that understands what each member of his team is supposed to be doing and can get the ball where it needs to be and when it needs to be there. It sounds simple, but it is a vital skill to have.

Craft is joined by Deshaun Thomas, who, for the first time in his collegiate career, will be the focal point of Ohio State’s offensive attack. Thomas has always been able to score the ball, and even averaged 15.9 points last season, but it will be interesting to see what happens when he also becomes to focal point of a defensive game-plan every night. Will he be a willing passer? Will he be able to wait for shot opportunities within the flow of the offense, or is he going to end up forcing the issue to often?

It will be interesting to see how Matta uses Thomas. The past two years, he’s been primarily a perimeter option, which was to his advantage as Thomas was mostly guarded by power forwards that were unable to stay with him on the perimeter. With Sullinger gone, will the 6-foot-7 combo-forward see more post touches?

Beyond those two, Ohio State has plenty of talent, but also plenty of question marks.

The biggest issue that Matta will need to address is where he finds secondary scoring options. Craft has never really been an offensive-minded player, but he will need to make that more of a focus this season. That still won’t be enough. Two guys that see primed for the role: Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross. Smith put together some big games in big moments — he had 28 in a win over Indiana, 17 and 12 boards in a win against Michigan, 35 combined points against Syracuse and Kansas in the NCAA tournament — but he was obscenely streaky last year, averaging just 6.8 points on the season.

Ross is a big-time talent. At one point in his early high school career, Ross was considered to be the best prospect in the country. But he’s had a myriad of issues since then and has never quite lived up to the expectations. He only saw action in nine games as a freshman, and even took to twitter to voice his displeasure with the lack of playing time.

Those two need to be able to provide somewhere around 22-24 points on a nightly basis for the Buckeyes.

There rest of Ohio State’s rotation will be made up of a trio of sophomores — athletic small forward Sam Thompson, backup point guard Shannon Scott and promising big man Amir Williams — as well as veteran center Evan Ravenel.

Predictions?: Ohio State has two proven stars on their roster, surrounded by a slew of highly ranked recruits that are yet to prove themselves on the collegiate level. Does that remind you of anyone? Like, I don’t know, Kansas from last season? This year’s Buckeyes and last year’s Jayhawks are quite different teams, but the situations are eerily reminiscent. We know how good Craft and Thomas can be, and if they live up to expectations while the Ohio State role players can step up and fill their assigned roles the same way Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Travis Releford did for Kansas last season, Matta’s team will be just fine.

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

Top 25 Countdown: No. 8 NC State

Mark Gottfried
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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: 24-13, 9-7 ACC (t-4th); Lost in the Sweet 16 to Kansas

Head Coach: Mark Gottfried

Key Losses: DeShawn Painter, CJ Williams

Newcomers: TJ Warren, Tyler Lewis, Rodney Purvis

Projected Lineup:

G: Lorenzo Brown, Jr.
G: Rodney Purvis, Fr.
F: Scott Wood, Sr.
F: CJ Leslie, Jr.
C: Richard Howell, Sr.
Bench: Tyler Lewis, Fr.; TJ Warren, Fr.; Jordan Vandenburg, Jr.

Outlook: There may not be a more polarizing team in the country that NC State this season. I say polarizing because, on paper, this team looks great.

Lorenzo Brown has morphed into one of the best point guards in the country. There really isn’t anything he can’t do at the position. He’s always had the size and athleticism, and last season he showed that he can be a primary scorer and ballhandler. What he’s added over the summer, according to most reports from people that have seen the Wolfpack workout, is that Brown has added an elite understanding of what it means to be a ‘point guard’. And with plenty of talent around him this season, the importance of his ability to get everyone shots cannot be understated.

Brown isn’t the only star on the NC State roster, as CJ Leslie is primed to have a monster season. Leslie entered the NC State program as a lanky, athletic forward, but he’s developed his game to the point that it wouldn’t be shocking to see him average 16 or 17 points this year. Leslie still has plenty of doubters, but I think that it’s important to note that he’ll be the sidekick this year. This is Brown’s team, and part of what makes Brown so good and Leslie so promising is that Leslie is going to get eight or ten points a night simply by catching and finishing opportunities created by Brown.

The Wolfpack got huge news back in mid-September when it was announced that the NCAA had granted NC State’s appeal and freshman Rodney Purvis was cleared to play this season. That had been in question, and the talented two-guard didn’t make the trip to Europe with the team. The addition of Purvis is important because he’s talented enough to create his own shot and get 15 or 20 points no a night when Brown and Leslie are struggling. Having that third threat to score is important, keeping defenses honest. The same can be said for TJ Warren, a wing that will play a similar role to what Deshaun Thomas played for Ohio State his freshman season.

Tyler Lewis, the third talented freshmen that Gottfried brought in this season, will back up Brown at the point, while Scott Wood will be the designated floor-spreader. The 6-foot-7 Wood hit 40.9% from beyond the arc as a junior.

The biggest issue NC State has from a personnel issue will be front court depth. Richard Howell, who averaged 10.3 points and 9.2 boards as a junior last season, is back and will start alongside Leslie, but with Deshawn Painter’s decision to transfer closer to his southern Virginia home, the Wolfpack are lacking big men. 7-foot-1 junior Jordan Vandenburg will likely be the first guy off the bench for Gottfried, while sophomore Thomas de Thaey will see some emergency minutes.

There is plenty of talent here, but the questions that most have regarding this team are a) whether or not Mark Gottfried is the guy that can bring that talent together, and b) if NC State is being overrated because of a pair of wins that came in the NCAA tournament.

Gottfried had a respectable tenure at Alabama, winning a couple of division titles in the SEC and making the Elite 8 one season. But he was hardly considered an elite coach during his time there and even fielded a couple of talented-but-disappointing teams. After spending a couple of seasons sitting at a desk at ESPN and making a move to Raliegh, he’s all of a sudden supposed to be able to turn the talent on his roster into wins?

It’s not exactly like last season was a shining example of coaching acumen. The Wolfpack finished 22-12 in the regular season and 9-7 in a top heavy ACC, managing to grab one of the last at-large bids in one of the weakest NCAA tournament fields in recent memory. They went just 1-6 against NCAA tournament teams from the ACC, and their only two wins over tournament teams in non-conference play came against UNC Asheville and Texas, when Longhorn star J’Covan Brown got a technical and was ejected with eight minutes left, completely changing the course of the game. NC State was down 18 in the second half of that game.

Just because they won two games in March means we’re supposed to forget the rest of the season happened?

That’s why this team is doubted by many. And that’s why there are people that believe this ranking will be too high.

Predictions?: Me? I believe in this group. I think there are going to be plenty of kinks to work out. I’m not sure how well Purvis is going to accept being third or fourth fiddle offensively, and Warren coming off the bench could be an issue as well. Any foul trouble up front will be worrisome. As talented as Leslie and Brown as, neither one has really shown that killer instinct; NC State blew a lot of leads last season (most notably a 20 point second half lead at Duke), which is worrisome. But this is a new year, and there is talent on this roster. I think the Wolfpack, who have a cushy ACC schedule, win the conference and get to at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

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

Top 25 Countdown: No. 9 Michigan Wolverines

Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr.
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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: 24-10, 13-5 Big Ten (t-1st); Lost in the Opening Round of the NCAA tournament to Ohio

Head Coach: John Beilein

Key Losses: Zack Novak, Evan Smotrycz, Stu Douglass

Newcomers: Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht

Projected Lineup:

G: Trey Burke, So.
G: Tim Hardaway Jr, Jr.
F: Glenn Robinson III, Fr.
F: Mitch McGary, Fr.
C: Jordan Morgan, Jr.
Bench: Nik Stauskas, Fr.; Jon Horford, So.; Matt Vogrich, Sr.; Spike Albrecht, Fr.

Outlook: On paper, this Michigan team is a very easy one to fall in love with.

It starts at the point guard spot, where John Beilein will have one of the best in the country at his disposal in Trey Burke. Burke was one of the country’s most pleasant surprises last season, as he filled in for NBA-bound Darius Morris by putting together an all-american caliber season while carrying the Wolverines to a share of the regular season title in the Big Ten. To get an idea of just how impressive and unexpected Burke’s season was, he went from the outside of most top 100 lists as a high school senior to sharing the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award with Cody Zeller.

Part of the reason that Burke was so effective for the Wolverines last season is that he’s excellent in pick-and-roll situations, something that Burke was called upon to do incredibly often last year. Essentially, what Beilein did is put the ball in Burke’s hands at the end of a clock, gave him a high-ball screen and let him create. More often than not, it worked out well, as Burke averaged 14.8 points and 4.6 assists on the season for one of the slower teams in college basketball.

At this point in his career, Burke can probably be called a scorer that is capable of being a playmaker, which was required of him last season with the makeup of Michigan’s roster. That may not be the case this season, as the Wolverines will have plenty of weapons.

Tim Hardaway Jr. has proven himself to be a capable slasher, averaging 14.6 points last season as Michigan’s secondary offensive option. He’ll slide down to the shooting guard role this season, meaning that it would be nice if he could, you know, shoot a little better than last year’s 28.3% clip from three. But Hardaway’s strength will always be as a big, athletic scorer, not as a spot-up shooter. Glenn Robinson III will slide over and play the role that Hardaway did last season, and the top 20 recruit actually has a similar skill-set to Hardway. He’s a little bigger and stronger than Hardaway, but he’s another big-time athlete on the wing that is capable of scoring in multiple ways.

Nik Stauskas is another freshman wing that will see a lot of time this season. Beilein has compared him to a five-tool prospect in baseball given the 6-foot-6 wing’s all-around ability. The most important may be how well he shoots the ball, as neither Robinson nor Hardaway are what you would call a knockdown shooter. Matt Vogrich and Spike Albrecht will be the guys that see emergency minutes on the perimeter.

This may be the best front court that has ever graced the roster of a Beilein coached team. It starts with junior Jordan Morgan, a strong, 6-foot-8 center that really seemed to build a chemistry with Burke in the pick-and-roll by the end of the season. He’ll be joined up front by Mitch McGary, a four-star recruit that was once considered a top three prospect in the class. McGary’s ceiling has dropped a bit, but that should take nothing away from his ability as a basketball player. He’s aggressive and he’s strong, although he sometimes relies too much on outhustling opponents. He ball skills definitely can stand to be polished. He has a bit of a young Tyler Hansbrough in him.

The third guy to keep an eye on will be Jon Horford, Al’s younger brother. He was injured much of last season, but he’s the biggest and most athletic of Michigan’s bigs.

There is a ton of talent on the Michigan roster, but there is also plenty of reason to be concerned. For the first time that I can remember, Beilein will be fielding a team that not only plays two true big men, but two big men that are nothing like the Kevin Pittsnoggles of yore. There is also a dearth of perimeter shooting for the Wolverines, which could also pose a problem. You see, when you hear the name John Beilein, you think of defenses spread thin by sharpshooters and big men that are more comfortable 20 feet from the rim than two feet from the rim. That’s not there this season. Will it be a problem?

Predictions?: Beilein’s teams usually execute well enough offensively, taking advantage of mismatches, that they can survive the fact they struggle defensively and on the glass. This group? Well, they look much better prepared to defend and rebound than run a typical Beilein offense. Does that mean things won’t work out in Ann Arbor? Not at all. Beilein can adapt his system to the strengths of his players and his players can adapt to fill the roles they’ll be asked to play. It’s just … interesting. How well the Wolverines and Beilein can manage with this kind of roster makeup will be one of the more important subplots of the season. Beilein’s always won with guys that everyone else overlooked, so what happens if he proves he can win with the guys everyone else wants?

As for this season, I think Michigan will be right there with Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, battling it out for second place in the conference behind Indiana.

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

Top 25 Countdown: No. 10 Baylor Bears

Baylor Bears' Jackson and Heslip sit on the bench during the second half of their men's NCAA South Regional basketball game against the Kentucky Wildcats in Atlanta
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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: 30-8, 12-6 Big 12 (t-3rd); Lost to Kentucky in the Elite 8

Head Coach: Scott Drew

Key Losses: Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller

Newcomers: Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers, LJ Rose, Chad Rykhoek, Taurean Prince

Projected Lineup:

G: Pierre Jackson, Sr.
G: Brady Heslip, Jr.
F: Deuce Bello, So.
F: Ricardo Gathers, Fr.
C: Isaiah Austin, Fr.
Bench: LJ Rose, Fr.; AJ Walton, Sr.; Cory Jefferson, Jr.; J’Mison Morgan, Sr.; Gary Franklin, Jr.

Outlook: Baylor is coming off of a weird season. They won 30 games and made it all the way to the Elite 8 before losing to the eventual national champions. But anyone you ask will tell you that the Bears were an utter disappointment last year. That’s what happens when you have a front line that includes Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy and spend the season on the outside looking in when it comes to the conversation for the elite teams nationally.

Think about it like this: Baylor went 1-6 against Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky last season and finished 29-2 against the rest of the country. That trip to the Elite 8? It consisted of wins over No. 14 South Dakota State, No. 11 Colorado (who finished sixth in the Pac-12), and No. 10 Xavier, who disappointed all season long and beat Lehigh to make the Sweet 16.

So why should we trust a team that disappointed for all of 2012 and saw four of its top six scorers leave?

It’s simple: Pierre Jackson.

Believe it or not, Jackson actually led the Bears in scoring last season while finishing third in the Big 12 is assists and second in steals. He may stand just 5-foot-10 on a good day, but he’s as athletic as any back court player in the country. He can get into the paint and finish amongst the trees, he can drive to create and he can hit threes. Defensively, his diminutive size and his quickness make him a pest on the ball.

That’s all well and good, but the reason that I think Jackson can carry this team is that he wants to be ‘the man’. Last season, it was Jackson with the ball in his hands at crunch time and Jackson who was taking last-second shots. The problem, however, was that everyone — including the Baylor coaching staff — wanted, expected and hoped that PJ3 would eventually figure it out and live up to his immense potential. I think that hindered Jackson, but with a young team sitting squarely on his shoulders this year, I’m expecting big things. I think he’ll have a senior season similar to that of Jacob Pullen and Sherron Collins.

Jackson will have plenty of backcourt support. Junior Brady Heslip is one of the most dangerous shooters in the country, knocking down threes at a 45.5% clip last season. AJ Walton and Gary Franklin are veterans that can score but are turnover prone, and their minutes may get taken by freshman LJ Rose is Rose can perform well. Baylor played some of their best basketball last season when they went with a three-guard set, and that may be the case again this season. One guy to keep an eye on this year will be Deuce Bello, a 6-foot-3, former top 50 shooting guard. Bello is renowned for his dunking ability, but the rest of his game is still catching up to his athleticism.

The good news for Jackson is that, once again, Scott Drew has brought in a talented recruiting class. It’s headlined by a pair of big men that could very well slide into Drew’s starting lineup. The biggest name is the biggest player on the roster, 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin, a top ten recruit nationally. Austin is similar to PJ3 is that he’s a perimeter-oriented player, with the handle and range of a two-guard. The knock on his throughout his high school career was that he wasn’t tough enough to play in the paint at a high level, but there are signs that he addressed that before he graduated.

And even if he didn’t, the Bears will have some muscle around the basket. Ricardo Gathers is a bullying, 6-foot-7 forward from Louisiana that was a four-star recruit. Joining them up front will be junior Cory Jefferson and senior J’Mison Morgan.

Predictions?: This season hinges on two things for the Bears: how much of an impact those freshmen big men will have and just how good Pierre Jackson truly is. If Jackson has a Big 12 Player of the Year caliber season and Austin and Gathers both end up being good enough to deserve consideration for all-Big 12 honors, Baylor will be one of the best teams in the Big 12.

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

Top 25 Countdown: No. 11 San Diego State Aztecs

NCAA Basketball Tournament - North Carolina State v San Diego State
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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: 26-8, 10-4 Mountain West (t-1st); Lost to NC State in the Opening Round of the NCAA tournament

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Key Losses: Garrett Green, Tim Shelton

Newcomers: Winston Shepard, Dwayne Polee II, JJ O’Brien, James Johnson, Matt Shrigley, Skylar Spencer

Projected Lineup:

G: Xavier Thames, Jr.
G: Chase Tapley, Jr.
F: Jamaal Franklin, Jr.
F: Winston Shepard, Fr.
C: DeShawn Stephens, Sr.
Bench: James Rahon, Sr.; Dwayne Polee II, So.; JJ O’Brien, So.; James Johnson, Jr.; Matt Shrigley, Fr.

Outlook: To get a feel for where the Aztec program is right now, think about this: after losing their top four players from the 2010-2011 season — including Kawhi Leonard — SDSU was in full-on, rebuilding year mode heading last season. But the Aztecs won 26 games and took home a share of the Mountain West title, watching as Jamaal Franklin went from a seldom-used bench piece to a starter early in the season to the MWC Player of the Year by the end of the year, racking up averages of 19.5 points and 9.9 boards in league play.

The Aztecs, who prior to 2011 had never won an NCAA tournament game, were knocked off in the opening round of the tournament by No. 11 seed NC State, and instead of enjoying their third straight — and fifth-ever — trip to the Big Dance, the Aztec faithful were upset about getting upset. That should tell you something about the expectations this team has heading into this season, as an influx of talented transfers and a crop of quality freshmen has the Aztecs sitting pretty as arguably the best team on the west coast.

For Fisher’s club, everything starts out on the perimeter, and Franklin’s name is the one to know. It took him a while to break into the starting lineup a year ago, but over the last couple of months of the season, he looked like an all-american. If Franklin had scored seven more points and grabbed just one more rebound in the 13 conference games he played, the 6-foot-5 wing would have averaged 20 and 10. There are two areas that Franklin needs to improve upon: he turns the ball over far too often, and he settles for too many three-pointers. But when he’s putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim, he’s one of the best players in the country.

And he’s far from alone in SDSU’s back court, a junior Xavier Thames and seniors James Rahon and Chase Tapley make-up SDSU’s four-guard attack. Tapley is the leader in this group. He’s SDSU’s best shooter and the guy that often has the ball in his hands in crunch-time. He can do a little bit of everything on the floor and has been through the battles — barring a disaster this year, he’ll be the first player in program history to play in four NCAA tournaments. Thames is SDSU’s play-maker, and his ability to get out and run the floor is one of the reasons SDSU will be looking to push the pace this season. Rahon is a sharp-shooter, but he struggled with his consistency last year, making just 32% from distance.

The front court is where things get interesting for SDSU. Garrett Green graduates, but Deshawn Stephens returns for his senior season to provide Fisher with some bulk inside. He’ll be joined by James Johnson, a former top 100 recruit and a transfer from Virginia, in December. Neither Stephens nor Johnson are particularly promising, but at some point size becomes a necessity.

The three other newcomers along the front line are the ones that have increased the level of hype surrounding this group. We’ll start with Winston Shepard, who is an athletic, 6-foot-8 small forward known for his versatility and playmaking ability. He’s a consensus top 50 recruit that has been labeled s five-star prospect by some outlets, and he should have an immediate and significant impact this year.

He’ll be joined by two sophomore transfers in Dwayne Polee II and JJ O’Brien. Polee is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-7 string bean that had a promising freshman season on the St. John’s team that made the tournament with a roster full of seniors. O’Brien, like Polee, is more of a wing forward than he is an interior presence, but he’s quality player that came on strong late in his one season at Utah.

Predictions?: The Mountain West is loaded this season, and given the strength that a number of the programs have historically had in their home venues, it’s easy to picture a scenario where the league’s champ ends up with four or five conference losses again. I peg SDSU as the favorite. They have the best player in the league in Franklin and the perfect roster makeup to become a team that plays a faster, more-uptempo pace.

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

Top 25 Countdown: No. 12 Michigan State Spartans

Will Sheehey, Branden Dawson
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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.