Can Michigan State Get to the Final Four Without an Elite Point Guard?Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on April 9th, 2014
About six months ago, when we kicked off RTC’s Big Ten microsite for the 2013-14 season, one of the first articles written was a discussion about Michigan State’s reliance on Keith Appling. “If Appling is effective, then the Spartans are arguably the best in the country, and without him, they lack the leadership to make the Final Four.” Fast-forward six months from that piece, and we saw Appling average two points per game during four games in the NCAA Tournament (that is not a typo). Tom Izzo’s offense looked completely lost during the final 10 minutes of its Elite Eight loss against Connecticut, and they were headed down a similar path against Virginia before Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson muscled their way to a victory. This particular discussion is not about why Appling was so ineffective because it is likely that he was still hurting from his wrist injury and just could never get back to 100 percent. Instead, the last two weeks proves the importance of Izzo’s dependence on effective point guard play, because every one of his Final Four teams relied heavily on a true point guard who could lead the team during crunch time.
Let’s start with the late 1990s when Izzo raised Michigan State basketball to a whole new level on the national stage by taking them to three straight Final Fours. There was a guy named Mateen Cleaves who had a pretty good handle on running the point, essentially acting as an extension of Izzo on the court. Even after Cleaves graduated, Charlie Bell handled the point guard duties effectively in the half-court, while the emergence of Jason Richardson on the wing improved the overall offense. Following that three-year stretch of playing on the last weekend, Izzo couldn’t get them back to the Final Four even though he recruited some excellent guards – Chris Hill and Maurice Ager were excellent scorers, but they couldn’t command the offense because of their skill sets better suited for calling their own numbers. Then came Drew Neitzel, a true point guard who was comfortable dishing the ball and letting the talented wings produce the bulk of the offense. Without Neitzel, Hill and Alan Anderson would have been the first set of seniors that would have graduated under Izzo without making a Final Four (until this year of course). Consider the next two Final Four appearances by the Spartans and another effective point guard, Kalin Lucas, dominated on both ends of the floor. Lucas was hurt during the NCAA Tournament for one of those runs, but Korie Lucious was able to step in effectively to cover the point guard position.
Izzo’s offense needs a guard who is comfortable running the offense and can control the team in the postseason. His best point guards don’t necessarily look to score all the time, but they can act as excellent coaches on the floor. Cleaves and Lucas didn’t have great long-range shots, but they knew exactly when to step back to let other players contribute and when to take over a game during the postseason. Looking ahead to next season, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine are the only capable replacements for Appling. Valentine, however, is a combo guard, so he may not be an optimal choice. Trice thrives on shooting from beyond the arc, but hasn’t had a chance to prove he can lead the offense without Appling or Gary Harris. It won’t be an easy season for Izzo because the point guard situation is currently unsettled and his track record has shown that without a floor general, it’ll be tough for his team to make a deep run in March. Nobody will count Michigan State out of the NCAA Tournament because a backcourt combination of Valentine, Trice and Dawson is still strong enough to win 22 games, but the postseason expectations need to be dialed down until the next chosen point guard arrives on campus.