Given the massive departure of talent from the B1G from last season- Oladipo, Burke, Zeller, Thomas, a half-dozen others- Derrick Nix's graduation was, for the most part, not discussed much. He had become a solid, if unspectacular, contributor capable of doing what a center needs to- provide some low-post scoring, reliable interior defense, and quality rebounding. With Adreian Payne's dramatically higher ceiling returning to the lineup, the thought was that Nix's minutes would be divided up amongst whichever candidates proved themselves most worthy, Payne would assume a larger role on the interior, and Tom Izzo's relentless roster tinkering would find a way to replace the big man's production.
Through the first four games of the season, that solution has yet to fully present itself. After the team has a high-profile win over Kentucky's latest batch of lottery picks, the Spartans have struggled to wins over a pair of unremarkable opponents in Columbia and Portland. The common thread linking those two games, as well as Kentucky's near-comeback in the second half, has been an uneasy truth: behind Adreian Payne, Michigan State's frontcourt isn't bringing much to the table just yet.
Of course, it is early in the season, small sample size and Izzo's roster-fidgeting caveats apply in full force. But if, as is sure to happen with the new emphasis on calling fouls, Payne should be relegated to the bench early, someone is going to have to play the interior, someone is going to have to guard the Mitch McGarys of the world.
The three candidates are redshirt junior Alex Gauna, sophomore Matt Costello, and freshman Gavin Schilling. All, of course, have their limitations, or they wouldn't be scrapping with each other for reserve minutes. Gauna, now in his 4th year, sometimes flashes nice moves on the offensive end, but remains an enormous liability on defense and consistently fails to box out properly, two things that will make a player's stay in a Tom Izzo lineup short-lived indeed. Schilling is too raw on both ends to provide much more than spot minutes; he does appear to have solid potential, but from what we've seen, expecting substantial contributions from him this year probably isn't realistic.
No, the answer to MSU's interior depth problem most likely starts and ends with Matt Costello. After beginning the season as a starter, Costello is now coming off the bench in an energy-providing role that seems to suit his playing style very well. We'll likely see Costello shuffled in and out of the starting lineup over the remainder of the non-conference season before Izzo settles on his rotation.
Costello, like Gauna and Schilling, still makes plenty of mistakes, which has limited him to around 12 minutes per game thus far. Still, he has displayed much more willingness than either of the other frontcourt options to actually take the shots he gets (11 FGA vs 9 combined for Gauna and Schilling), and considering MSU's perimeter scoring options, he doesn't need to provide an enormous dose of bench scoring to serve his purpose. His defense is far and away the best of the three. All Costello needs to do is cut down his fouling, and MSU's interior will be set.
Payne is clearly MSU's top option inside, but Costello could be the piece that allows MSU to put it all together. Though it may not get all the media coverage, he improvement of Costello may be the part of the team that Spartan fans want to keep their eyes on.