- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Michigan State.
1. Yesterday's inaugural 3BT celebrated now-departed Marquette senior stars Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, and discussed how Marquette could recover from losing not one but two efficient, high-usage Big East Player of the Year candidates. It won't be easy.
Michigan State's position is not dissimilar. Like Marquette, it returns most of its starters, who together form a very solid core. Like Marquette, its most important player in 2012 was a senior. The only difference? Draymond Green is one player, not two, even if his performance -- Green did as much as any player in the country in 2011-12, and did it so well he earned the top spot in Ken Pomeroy's season-ending individual awards -- was enough to deserve double the plaudits.
Replacing Green's production is the first challenge, and it won't be easy, but like Marquette, Michigan State doesn't have to (and definitely shouldn't) hope to replace what Green did on the floor with any one player. Instead, it will require a combination of efforts, because Green did so much: Scoring, rebounding, ballhandling, passing out of the high post -- you name it, Green did it. It's a fair bet to assume Michigan State will be able to replace Green's scoring; the Spartans have a host of productive players (both returning and arriving) to throw at the problem. Rebounding could be a different story. Green, who posted a 28.5 percent defensive rebounding rate (good for seventh best in the country) was a beast on the defensive glass last season, a one-man stopgap against extra offensive possessions. The next-best defensive rebounder on the team, center Adreian Payne, posted a 16.9 percent rate, and no one else broke the 13 percent mark.
Anyway, I could go on for dozens of paragraphs about all the things Green did for the Spartans; I could spend thousands of words breaking down KenPom.com numbers and Synergy stats. None of it would get to the biggest loss in Green's departure: leadership. Few players have earned coach Tom Izzo's enduring respect like Green; few players have embodied the time-tested coach-on-the-floor role like the man they call Day Day. These sorts of nebulous qualities can be overrated in sports, college hoops included, but in Green's case, the value of his sheer presence is almost impossible to overstate. How Michigan State moves forward without it will be the defining baseline of the 2012-13 season.
2. The good news? From a sheer talent standpoint, the Spartans might be the deepest team in the country. They have a host of productive players in the backcourt (Keith Appling, Travis Trice), on the wing (Branden Dawson, Russell Byrd, Brandan Kearney) and on the low block (Payne, Derrick Nix) to throw at the problem, and those are just the returners. Tom Izzo also has a recruiting class featuring four top-100 prospects, including the No. 2-ranked shooting guard in the country in Gary Harris. With everybody battling for minutes and improving with experience, and with Izzo bringing everyone along, Spartans' fans expectations should hardly be lowered. This looks like a very good team.
3. How good can Appling be? The Spartans will have great battles at the wing positions -- Dawson, if healthy (he's recovering from a torn ACL, but appears to be on track for a nearly full season), can be a force, and the thought of him playing alongside Harris should tickle every MSU die-hard's basketball erogenous zone -- and with Nix and Payne, the forward spots are set. (I have some questions about whether Payne and Nix can score with their backs to the basket, but that was never a major feature of the Spartans last season anyway, and they seemed to do just fine.)
But the really intriguing question about this lineup, at least for me, is how much of a leap Appling, now a junior, can make. As a freshman, Appling proved his defensive chops early -- what better way to get Izzo on your side than that? -- and as a sophomore, he took over as State's primary ball handler and perimeter threat. Even so, his shooting was merely OK; he posted a 46.6 effective field goal percentage and shot just 25 percent from beyond the arc. With efficient spot shooter Austin Thornton (lest we forget; I see you, Austin Thornton) and solid 2-guard Brandon Wood both lost to graduation, will Appling need to extend his offensive game to keep the Spartans dynamic? Can he?
Then there are the turnovers. Appling posted a 20.6 percent turnover rate in 2011-12, just three points less than his sterling assist rate of 23.6 percent. For much of the past decade, Izzo's teams have largely thrived in spite of their turnover issues; the Spartans make up for lost possessions on the glass, thank you very much. Even so, when you combine Appling's lackluster outside shooting with a tendency to turn the ball over, you get a player who could be much more efficient -- and isn't nearly the all-court threat he could be.
We know this much: Appling will give Izzo tough-as-nails defense at the point of attack. He'll be a de facto leader. He'll create problems and score points in transition. But with a couple of tweaks -- better shooting, fewer turnovers and a greater willingness to attack in the half court -- we could be talking about a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. If Appling gets there, look out.
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology.