Season In Review: Michigan State SpartansPosted by jnowak on April 23rd, 2013
What does it say about the state of a program when it makes another Sweet Sixteen — its 11th since 1998 — and the fan base is not all too thrilled? That’s not to say Michigan State fans don’t appreciate the feat (it really is remarkable) but it’s just an indication of how strong this program has grown under Tom Izzo, particularly in March. At times this year, the Spartans looked like a surefire Final Four team and a national title contender after many had discounted them early in the Big Ten race. But they had injuries, inconsistency from Keith Appling and a hell of a draw in the NCAA Tournament standing in their way. To further evaluate Michigan State’s year, let’s take a closer look:
Right around the time Michigan State beat rival Michigan, 75-52, in a highly-anticipated intrastate rivalry blowout, we got a glimpse of just how good the Spartans could be. Everything came together that night. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne gave the team a traditional athletic one-two punch inside, and Nix could be the only player leaving after this season if Payne decides to ignore the NBA for one more year. Gary Harris had a team-high 17 points with a 5-of-9 three-point shooting performance that helped earn him Freshman of the Year honors. Keith Appling was steady on both ends, providing excellent man-to-man defense on Michigan’s Trey Burke and finding his way into the lane and finishing. And Branden Dawson gave the Spartans energy around the rim. That game summarized everything that was good about the Spartans’ season — the five different players who could provide the team with a spark on any given night, the defense (seventh in KenPom’s adjusted defense), the rebounding prowess, and the individual talent. There were other high-water marks — wins against other top Big Ten teams, an important non-conference win against Kansas (the Spartans’ had the nation’s No. 3 strength of schedule), and Izzo’s 11th Sweet Sixteen berth — but that game was the microcosm.
As good as any of the aforementioned aspects of the Spartans could be at any given moment, most any of them could be flipped in the other direction. Harris, though arguably the Spartans’ most consistent player, even as a freshman, endured injury trouble along with fellow backcourt mate Travis Trice. Appling’s scoring and confidence faded toward the end of the Big Ten schedule — he combined for 18 points in three crucial games against Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan, which all resulted in losses. Nix never grew out of the brain cramps that have hindered him most of his career. And Dawson too appeared lost or disinterested at times. For a guy who relies so much on his motor — when he doesn’t show it, the vacuum is glaring. In the end, none of these factors single-handedly got the Spartans eliminated against Duke — for a No. 3 seed, Michigan State had probably the toughest regional draw in the Tournament, with both Duke and Louisville standing in the way of the Final Four — but they all hurt the Spartans at some point in the year. (And don’t even get me started about their inbounds plays.)
A lot is hinging on the big guy pictured above. Harris has already decided he’ll be returning for his sophomore season. And he won’t have surgery, which means that the Spartans trust that his shoulder issues can take care of themselves and he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason of workouts. Nix (9.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG) is the only player scheduled to leave, pending Payne’s decision. If Payne returns, Sparty will be looking at a starting five of Trice-Appling-Harris-Dawson-Payne, or Matt Costello slotted in at the five if the Spartans want to go bigger. Either way, that rotation stacks up impressively against anybody in the country. At this point, what Russell Byrd and Alex Gauna provide is gravy, Costello and Denzel Valentine have shown growth, and Kenny Kaminski could provide some spark off the bench in his first year of eligibility. If Payne leaves for the NBA, this is a Top 10 team. If he stays, they might be in the top two.