Sometimes we get too excited about experience. We assume players and thus teams get better with age, and that experience automatically leads to improvement. And it often does! But every year, it seems, a team whose main quality is "everyone is back" enters the season overrated, because experience isn't an automatic guarantee of anything, let alone some major leap. The team is what it is, for better or worse. Disappointment ensues.
Michigan State is not this team.
On Sunday night, a few hours before the NBA early entry draft deadline, Michigan State forward Adreian Payne announced his decision to return to school for his senior season in 2013-14. It's a decision that makes Michigan State not only the early title favorite in another good edition of the Big Ten, but also an early top-five squad and the most viable national title contender outside the state of Kentucky.
And it's not just because, with Payne in the fold, the Spartans return four starters and most of the major contributors to last year's group. It's because both Payne and sophomore guard Gary Harris could still improve in ways that will make Michigan State more versatile than at any point in 2012-13.
Harris will be a sophomore, so projecting him to improve on an aleady-excellent freshman year is obvious enough. Even if that improvement is around the margins -- more strength, better core balance attacking the rim, better defense, a willingness to be even more assertive -- it will add new dimensions to his game.
Payne, however, is a senior. After three years, why should we expect more?
Because it's clear Payne is still scratching the surface of immense talent. Take his 3-point shooting, for instance. After two years of never, ever shooting 3s -- and a freshman season in which the notion of Payne shooting the ball from anywhere but the low block would have been a laughable proposition -- Payne suddenly added a long-range shot to his arsenal midway through last season. It happened Jan. 27 at Indiana, when Payne went 3 of 4 from three, attempting and making as many 3s in one evening as he had all season. It wasn't a fluke. Payne shot 3s frequently in MSU's final 15 games, finishing the year 16-of-42. His long-range work was a sudden, crucial wrinkle -- a totally new and workable way for the Spartans to attack. And it almost seemed impromptu.
Likewise, Payne was a better ballhandler and passer than at any point in his career, but he could still get better at both. He is a more versatile interior scorer than in the past, when he served as a raw shot-blocker, rebounder and rim-runner, but he could still add a go-to move over both shoulders in the post.
But it's clear all of these things are on development curves, and that unlike some college juniors and seniors, Payne is nowhere near close to fully formed as a player. This is a good thing for Michigan State, because if Payne puts it all together next season, the Spartans will have the Big Ten freshman of the year (Harris) returning to play alongside a super-athletic 6-foot-10 scorer and elite defender, who stretches the floor from the outside as readily as he finishes at the rim. And they'll also have senior point guard Keith Appling and smooth-passing sophomore Denzel Valentine and another typically solid Tom Izzo recruiting class.
The result would be experience plus dynamic, ever-improving talent -- without the trade-offs inherent in either. That's a fearsome prospect for everyone not named Kentucky or Louisville, and a totally thrilling one, too.