2013-14 RTC Class Schedule: Michigan State SpartansPosted by BHayes on September 6th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @HoopsTraveler. Periodically throughout the preseason, RTC will take an in-depth look at the schedules of some of the more prominent teams in college basketball.
Watch out for Sparty in 2013-14. Tom Izzo returns nearly every key contributor from his Sweet 16 squad of a year ago, with only bruising big man Derrick Nix since departed. More good news for East Lansing’s finest: the Big Ten shouldn’t prove quite as challenging as it did last season as fellow top-four finishers Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio State all suffered major personnel losses in the offseason. That may mean some turnover at the top, especially with a number of teams in the bottom half of the conference looking improved from a season ago. So, sure – you can expect a little reshuffling at the top of the Big Ten. But with the returns of Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne (among others) to East Lansing, you should also feel pretty safe in believing that Sparty will be right where they always are come March – in the hunt for a Big Ten title, preparing themselves for a sustained Tournament push.
- Team Outlook: Despite the arrival of a relatively underwhelming freshmen class – neither center Gavin Schilling nor shooting guard Alvin Ellis has the look of a minute-eating freshman, Tom Izzo’s cupboard is fully stocked. The backcourt features the Spartan’s two top scorers from a year ago in Keith Appling (13.4 PPG, 3.3 APG) and Gary Harris (12.9 PPG, 41% 3PT). Both battled nagging injuries throughout last winter, so an offseason of rest and rehabilitation may have been just what the Spartans needed although Harris appears to have suffered a temporary setback with a sprained ankle that will keep him out until at least the start of practice. With another year under their belt and improved health (knock on wood), there should be an expectation of increased, or at least more efficient, contributions from the duo. The third centerpiece of this Spartan club is center Adreian Payne, who broke out in his sophomore season posting season averages of 10.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, and 1.3 BPG as the big man even showed an unexpectedly refined touch from deep. After only attempting two three-pointers in his first season in East Lansing, Payne went 16-42 from beyond the stripe last season, giving Izzo (and NBA scouts) hope that he might progress even further here in year three. Branden Dawson (8.9 PPG and 5.9 RPG) is the fourth Spartan returning starter, while versatile sophomore Denzel Valentine (5.0 PPG and 4.1 RPG) would seem like the top candidate to occupy the starting slot left open by the departure of Nix, an insertion that would necessitate a slide to the power forward position for Dawson. Sophomore Travis Trice (4.8 PPG, 1.9 APG) should operate as a capable backup for Appling at the point, but Tom Izzo will have decisions to make in rounding out the bench rotation beyond Trice. Matt Costello and Alex Gauna only averaged about six minutes per game each a season ago, but both could be thrust into larger roles this time around. Junior Russell Byrd and the freshman Schilling may also be options for Izzo in his quest to sort out the frontcourt rotation, as he seeks to at least partially replace the physicality and production that Nix brought to the table last season. Payne and Dawson should take care of plenty of that by themselves, and let’s also remember that this is Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans – if you can’t rebound you don’t see the floor, so expect the old coach to find some tough role players somewhere on the roster.
- Non-Conference Schedule Rank (out of 10): 7. As usual, Izzo has crafted a hefty non-conference slate for his team. Heck, Michigan State will even be playing Indiana in an exhibition game! Well, it’s the Indiana contained within PA, but still, the Spartans will be tested before Big Ten play. The November 12 date with the potential #1 team in the land, Kentucky, looms as the headliner, but Izzo’s bunch will also face UNC in the Big Ten-ACC challenge, Virginia Tech, and then likely Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Throw in in an odd February non-conference game versus Georgetown at Madison Square Garden and you have what should be a pretty challenging non-conference slate. The Kentucky game is as marquee as it gets in early November, but the overall grade on the schedule gets pulled down by the cornucopia of non-competitive low- and mid-majors that will be taking turns getting walloped at the Breslin Center this winter. All in all though it’s hard to say Izzo is hiding from anyone with this schedule.
- Cupcake City: Standard protocol calls for any BCS power to lace the early season schedule with at least a few guaranteed wins, and guaranteed wins there will be for the Spartans. Only Grambling, they of 0-28 fame, graded out worse in Ken Pom’s rankings than New Orleans, who will serve as a late Christmas gift for Sparty when they visit the Breslin Center on December 28. Other Ken Pom sub-200 squads that are on the November-December ledger are McNeese State, Portland, Mount St. Mary’s, Oakland, and North Florida. It’s hard to see any of these foes providing much resistance for Michigan State, but let’s not forget that Louisiana-Lafayette (232nd a year ago according to Ken Pom) gave last year’s Spartans all they could handle in a November game that no one expected to be close. The Ragin Cajuns ultimately fell by three in that one. It’s a reminder that you never really know, but an imitation of that effort from the aforementioned schools would be an upset in it of itself.
- Toughest Early Season Test: That December 4 date with UNC will be no walk in the park, but the friendly confines of the Breslin Center and the likely absence of Carolina star P.J. Hairston will lessen that challenge considerably. Those caveats remove any semblance of doubt in this category, as the Champions Classic matchup with Kentucky may be the most anticipated non-conference match-up of the entire season. The pairing of a veteran Michigan State squad with a Kentucky team featuring one of the greatest freshman classes in college basketball history makes for a tantalizing culture clash. One would think that the Spartan chemistry, years in the making, would matter here, but we have seen Coach Cal get his young teams together in a hurry before. My mouth is watering already…
- Hardest Big Ten Stretch: Michigan State’s Big Ten slate saves the best for last, as a trip to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan on February 23 kicks off a trying four game stretch for the Spartans. Up next are home games against Iowa and Illinois, two teams fully capable of both making the NCAA Tournament and challenging Michigan State at the Breslin Center. The finale comes in Columbus against Ohio State, where we can expect a vintage Big Ten battle from two of the grittiest teams in college hoops.
- Easiest Big Ten Stretch: With teams like Penn State, Northwestern, and Nebraska carrying at least the hope of upward mobility into the new season, it’s hard to find too many “easy” stretches during the Spartans Big Ten schedule. The softest segment will likely come at the beginning of February. The five game stretch includes home dates with those three cellar dwellers from a year ago – Penn State on February 6, Northwestern a week later, and Nebraska on February 16, and a trip to West Lafayette to take on a young Purdue team. Of course, included in that stretch (on February 9) is a visit to the Kohl Center in Madison, a game that we know will not be easy. I warned you – it’s difficult to find a definitively easy stretch of basketball in this conference, but the first few weeks of 2014’s second month will be as straight forward as it will get for Izzo’s team.
- Best Individual Match-up: We have already dug into the beauty of that early-season date with Kentucky, so I’ll go with the in-state rivalry that continues to heat up, as Michigan State will face off against Michigan twice this year – January 25 in East Lansing, and February 23 in Ann Arbor. With Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr gone, the Wolverines face significant question marks in the backcourt, but the battle up front will be one to watch. He may not appreciate this compliment, but Mitch McGary’s motor and toughness would fit nicely in Tom Izzo’s Spartan program – perhaps better than any player in the country. Point is, Payne, Dawson, and company need be prepared to match that intensity, as McGary’s running mates Glenn Robinson Jr. and Jordan Morgan have also been known to attack the glass on occasion. No rebound will be safe in this pair of intriguing rivalry games.
- Most Challenging Road Test: A season ago, challenging road tests littered every Big Ten schedule. There will again be few walks in the park, but the expected drop-off of those top teams (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State), however small it may be, should eliminate a few automatic losses. Given the uncertainty of those clubs, I’ll hazard a guess that it will be the always tough trip to the Kohl Center that emerges as the second toughest (after the Breslin Center) place to play in this Big Ten. Wisconsin returns a lot of talent, gets Josh Gasser back from injury, and when have we ever seen a Bo Ryan team underachieve? Throw in the fact that few home courts seem to consistently morph into the house of horrors that the Kohl Center does year in and year out, and you have a road trip that will end poorly for most, if not all visitors. Michigan State will be one of the few teams that enter the building with a fighter’s chance at a W.
- Upset City: Road stops in the Big Ten are always perilous, which is why I’m not ready to count possible losses in Iowa City or West Lafayette to emerging foes Iowa and Purdue as true upsets. However, dropping a game in Happy Valley to a Penn State team that went 2-14 a season ago would fit the bill. Tom Izzo’s teams are unprepared about as often as Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament, but a New Year’s Eve tip that comes during winter break and after a serious lull in the schedule should challenge Izzo to have his group ready. Of course, that December vacation means there won’t be many students around the Penn State campus to build an atmosphere, but who are we kidding – they wouldn’t be there anyways. 2-14 record aside, the Nittany Lions did show signs of life on the back end of last year’s Big Ten season and have 2012 All-Big Ten first teamer Tim Frazier back after he missed nearly all of last season. Frazier and company aren’t going to win the conference, but they could provide Michigan State a pesky challenge – especially if New Year’s Eve causes any extra distractions for the Spartans.