Is Michigan State Being Overlooked?

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 9th, 2015

It was supposed to happen with the group led by Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling two seasons ago — that was the team that was supposed to end Tom Izzo‘s four-year Final Four ‘drought.’ Instead, that Michigan State squad lost to Connecticut in the Elite Eight and it was his follow-up group — led by leftovers like Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice — that recovered from a shocking early home loss to Texas Southern to play in the season’s final weekend. Most of that team returns this season, and some high-impact newcomers are also on board. Shouldn’t Izzo’s Spartans be ranked higher to start the season? Isn’t another March run a distinct possibility?

Denzel Valentine will look to lead Michigan State to bigger and better things in his senior season (Getty).

Denzel Valentine will look to lead Michigan State to bigger and better things in his senior season (Getty).

Sparty begins the season ranked #13 in both major polls. It returns eight of its top 10 scorers from last season and adds West Virginia transfer Eron Harris (17.2 PPG in 2013-14) to the mix. The freshman class includes McDonald’s All-American Devonta Davis along with a couple more knockdown shooters in Kyle Ahrens and Matt McQuaid. Perimeter shooting definitely appears to be a major positive for this team. Multiple shooters could hit close to 40 percent from deep, as Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Harris have all reached that benchmark in recent seasons. Sharing the ball is another positive aspect of what should be an elite offense. Michigan State logged the seventh best team assist rate in the nation last year, assisting on 63.7 percent of its field goals. Valentine in particular has shown an ability to find the open man as a point forward, ranking eighth in the Big Ten in assist rate (26.9 percent) last year and cutting down his turnover rate by two percent despite much higher usage. Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn also notched an assist rate above 20 percent, and that number should increase if he gets added minutes with the departure of Trice. This could be an elite Spartans’ offense once the season gets rolling.

Sparty’s defensive numbers were solid but not spectacular a season ago. Teams didn’t shoot the ball very well against them (giving up 44.9 percent eFG%) and they held opponents down on the offensive backboards (27.0 percent), but someone from the group of Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, and Davis will need to replace Branden Dawson’s workmanlike activity on the glass. Izzo’s team also needs to force more turnovers to earn extra possessions, as opponents turned the ball over on only 16.5 percent of their trips a season ago. Where Michigan State could find problems is in the loss of Dawson’s versatility and at the free throw line (which remains odd for such an excellent outside shooting team). Can someone like Marvin Clark or Javon Bess pick up some of what Dawson did defensively — particularly guarding bigger players and banging with them in the post? Losing the steady leadership of Trice will also hurt, but Harris should be up to the task.

Despite these questions, Michigan State has every bit as much talent and depth as it had last season and there’s no reason to believe this team can’t advance to the Final Four again. Despite Sparty’s middling preseason ranking, this is an experienced and tested group. Don’t be surprised if Michigan State ultimately spends most of the season hanging around the top 10 before making another deep postseason run into March. It’s the Izzo way.

Brendan Brody (307 Posts)

Brendan Brody is in his fourth season covering the Big Ten for RTC. Email him at, or follow him on twitter @berndon4.

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