Coming out of non-conference play, Spartan Basketball is a comfortable 11-2. They’re not an outstanding 11-2, not a disappointing 11-2, and certainly not a soft 11-2. All in all they’ve been pretty solid. There’s one big win on their resume, which many considered a surprise, and arguably two surprise losses. But if you look back at their travel schedule now, it’s easier to see how such jet setting could catch up to them. This is a young team, an evolving team, and as Tom Izzo told us earlier this month, still very much a work in progress.
“We’re nowhere where I think we’re gonna be,” he told Spartan Nation earlier this month. The Spartans have made strides since then, but have been looking to make their biggest jump during these quiet weeks of December that lead up to the opener at The Barn on New Year’s Eve. Defending another Big Ten Championship won’t come easy because this is another Golden Age of Big Ten Basketball. Though the league has been the nation’s best in recent years, the gap may be its widest beginning league play as the Big Ten has 6 teams in the top 19 right now.
The Spartans biggest roster spot to fill in 2013 was of course left open by Draymond Green. The Dancing Bear is already making plays in the Golden State, and left a hole in the Izzo era that could only be compared to the one left by Mateen Cleaves. Replacing Green “in some ways, is harder,” Izzo explained, because of the versatility the crafty Saginaw native brought to the court. “He had every bit some of the leadership qualities (as Cleaves), but the way we ran our Offense, we went through him as a “4 Man” a lot.” That could take a while to redevelop, but the team’s chemistry and leadership cannot.
“I love our chemistry, but our leadership is still a work in progress,” Izzo explained. With such a young team, Izzo’s biggest challenge may be to figure out what each guy can do, with so many lacking any real game experience. There’s no short cut to game experience, guys simply have to play in order to truly evaluate how they can contribute. So this year we’ve seen many different player combinations on the floor, with more than ten different Spartans seeing time during non-league games.
Izzo has mentioned in recent weeks that the playing rotation will begin to tighten up a bit. Look for the Spartans to have that rotation trimmed when they get down to the serious business that is opening the Big Ten year on the road at Minnesota. That’s far from the environment you want to try and figure out your rotation in.
At this point the best Spartan line up looks to be Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, and Derrick Nix. That being said, Travis Trice missed so much time with injury at the start of the season that we may see a different “best five” come late February. It’s possible that Trice is the true Point Guard the Spartans need to make things run best, which may move Valentine or another into a “catch all” role as the team’s 6th man. As Spartan Nation knows, the 6th, 7th, or even 8th man of Spartan Basketball is hardly a slouch.
Keith Appling can play Point Guard, but is far from a traditional facilitator like a Mateen Cleaves. Better yet, he’s now an accomplished “closer” with his performance against Kansas. That cannot be understated. His predecessor Kalin Lucas made a habit of closing out games, including the classic “count it and the FOUL!” drive to beat the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16 thriller of 2009. Look for MSU to give Appling more looks from a Shooting Guard spot, but also to rely on him late to take care of the ball and get the Offense into their sets. Appling’s play late in games during this Big Ten season may mean more than his overall numbers, and will likely go hand in hand with MSU’s record in games decided by less than two possessions (<6 points).
There’s a lot of talent on this team outside of Appling and the starting five. Adreian Payne has come on since the start of the year, now averaging about 7.5 Rebounds and 8.5 points per game. Spartan Nation would be wise to look at Nix and Payne’s production together as one slot on the team, taking into account the total production of the two on a game by game basis rather than each individually. If they can get more than 15 of both points and rebounds per game, they’re likely to be in the Big Ten race for good. But that’s big “if,” and it may have to be supplemented by true Freshmen Matt Costello if one of them has an off night.
Any look at Spartan Basketball has to address the program foundations of Defense and Rebounding. Right now MSU is 8th in Rebound Margin (11.5/gm.) and 17th in Scoring Defense (56.4 PPG) nationally. It’s tough to put too much into those numbers because of the variance of non-league schedules, but they should be encouraging. It would be nice to see a Spartan come off the bench and step forward in those two areas with an energy and mentality impact the game’s flow.
MSU has regularly started and featured two Freshmen already in Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris. Valentine has the best Basketball IQ to come along since Draymond Green, and Harris is having the best Freshmen season we’ve seen under Tom Izzo since Zach Randolph. It’s not that others haven’t had a decent Freshmen year, but that Harris came in with big time hype and has already delivered big time.
“Valentine might be the best passer on the team, but has got to get better in some of those other areas,” Izzo explained. When the Freshmen doesn’t get coached by Izzo, he doesn’t have to look far for other guidance. “Carlton (his father) had him working out early in the morning, doing a lot of things, just making the (needed) adjustments,” Izzo added. Valentine is already among the most versatile players on the roster, and Harris has the look and game of a gunslinger. Each may have his role expand as Big Ten play heats up.
The “X-Factor” of this 2013 team is a guy looking to continue one of the most remarkable comebacks in ACL history. Branden Dawson tore his Left ACL last March against Ohio St., unfortunately derailing what looked like another MSU Final Four team. The Spartans recovered briefly, but couldn’t sustain their pace without the most physically explosive Spartan since Jason Richardson. Less than 9 months after his ACL tear, Dawson was already making a comeback only rivaled by the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, who tore his ACL at the end of the last NFL season and is having an MVP 2012.
“We’re not going to see the real Dawson until January,” Izzo remarked. But that’s not to take away from the true medical surprise we’ve already seen. Dawson doesn’t wear a brace, hasn’t looked much like he’s coming off any serious injury, and has battled his way to 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He’s also leading the team with 25 steals so far. Dawson couldn’t have been expected to do much more. It would’ve been less surprising if he hadn’t really come back at all before New Year’s 2013. Instead, Dawson’s back, his game is coming back, and his confidence is on the rise. How far his game comes from here is the key variable to determine whether the Spartans can defend their Big Ten title or if they’re out of the chase by early February.
The Spartans have reached the mid-point of the season with around the overall record most expected, but not necessarily in the predicted fashion. The best news for Spartan Nation is that this squad is deep, and appears to get along well. A good or great team chemistry can often lead a team to overachieve and exceed expectations. If the Spartans can define their roles better and get players to accept them, they could have a real shot to defend the Big Ten once again. It won’t be an easy task, and no Big Ten contender should take the approach that 2013 will not be a success without a Big Ten Title. We could very well see a second or third runner up in this league make the trip to Atlanta for April’s Final Four. If the Spartans want to make either of those goals happen, their first steps in Minnesota will have to set the tone.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around With
- 1. The Spartans high point so far was Keith Appling leading the way down the stretch to secure MSU’s biggest win of the year over Kansas, and its invaluable experience of closing out a big one late.
- 2. The season’s low point was probably the overall team effort in Germany against UConn. The injury to Travis Trice only added to the hefty let down that was MSU showing up and looking for the short handed Huskies to roll over and bow to the Green and White jerseys. They didn’t, and MSU looked bad on perhaps their biggest national stage of the year.
- 3. What in the world is with this new elbowing rule around Rebounds? If College Basketball isn’t careful, it’s going to take another big step back through officiating and give people yet another reason to follow something else during the winter months. The powers that had better realize how close their sport is to complete irrelevance in every month not named March, and quit messing with a basic fundamental like how to secure a Rebound to control possession.