The Spartans are considered by most to be the Big Ten favorite for the 2013-2014 season. This is primarily due to their strong performance last year including a Sweet Sixteen appearance and the fact that they return 4 of 5 starters from last year's lineup. However, one position group that does appear to have some question marks is the frontcourt. The one starter that is not returning (Derrick Nix) comes from the frontcourt. Can Izzo find a replacement for Nix and get the Spartans to live up to lofty expectations?
The Spartans will be stacked for this season, but the question of who will get the starting nod upfront has bugged fans all offseason. One clear starter is Adreian Payne. Payne is now a senior and averaged 10.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 25.6 minutes per game last season. He ranked 2nd on the roster in rebounding rate (17.4%) and defensive rebounding rate (23.9%) and ranked 3rd in blocking rate (5.6%) according to Basketball Reference. When you consider that almost all of the players above him played limited minutes, his impact down low for the Spartans becomes evident. Along with this impact, Payne also showed some improved post moves as the season went on including adjusting around the hoop and finishing. Plus, he displayed an outside shot that few other big men in the nation possess. These tools make him one of top players in the conference.
However, there is no proven starter next to Payne upfront. This leaves Izzo two options. He could either slide Payne over to center and move a player like Branden Dawson over to the 4 or bring another big man off the bench into the starting lineup. If Payne does play center extensively, Dawson appears to be the guy to slide down to the 4 to play small. He has defended pretty well over his career and is a proven player in the starting lineup. Plus, although he is only 6'6", Glenn Robinson III was roughly the same height last season and played well enough for Michigan at the same position to get them to the title game. Dawson averaged 8.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 26.9 minutes per game last season, but most believed injuries limited his impact. If he could play this spot adequately, MSU could potentially have five scoring options on the floor and truly have a dynamic offense.
If Izzo decides to go big, he will likely look to Matt Costello or Alex Gauna to come off the bench into the starting lineup. Neither player has been particularly productive over the last few years in East Lansing, but both have shown potential. Costello did play significantly late in the season including double digits minutes in both games against Michigan and 11 minutes against Wisconsin. This doesn't sound like a lot, but it's important to remember that MSU had two proven starters that already played heavy minutes. Gauna played a little less, but did get on the floor in each of MSU's final 17 games. That includes games against Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, and Duke. Costello appears to have the edge here (started exhibition game), but it seems likely that this competition will continue for much of the year until someone emerges as the clear starter.
There's no doubt that the majority of the backup minutes will be absorbed by either changing the lineup (small/big) or come from the "loser" of the Costello/Gauna battle. This will be important because there's no doubt that players like Payne and Dawson will have to go to the bench and frontcourts are particularly vulnerable to foul trouble. If MSU has the option to bring another guard/wing player onto the floor instead of using someone beyond Costello or Gauna, it could have a big impact on the team's efficiency as the year continues. Regardless, there are still a few options for MSU to bring off the bench.
Some of the more notable options will be Gavin Shilling and Kenny Kaminski. Both have freshmen eligibility, but Kaminski redshirted last season and is up to 225 lbs according to MSU's official website as compared to just 195 lbs listed on his recruiting profile. Kaminski was rated as a 4* recruit according to 247Sports and Shilling was rated as a 3* recruit. Both clearly have potential, but Kaminski seemingly has the edge given his experience and the fact that he already redshirted. If both players are competing for 5-10 minutes a game, it probably makes a lot more sense to give them to Kaminski and redshirt Shilling unless he truly outperforms Kaminski. Overall, expect both players to have limited contributions over the year.
Finally, if the team gets into "garbage" time or is in incredible foul trouble, look for Trevor Bohnhoff and Colby Wollenman to get some time. Bohnhoff is from Saginaw, Michigan and Wollenman is from Big Horn, Wyoming. Both are walk-on players, but could be important for the scout team and getting MSU ready for opponents as the year continues. Neither is expected to get many minutes.
Biggest Question: Can MSU Find Help For Payne?
I wrote about this last summer and I still believe it: Adreian Payne is the most important player in the Big Ten for this season. Why do I say that? The big reason is because he has very little help proven upfront. Players like Costello and Gauna have shown potential, but nobody has shown they can be productive for starter minutes. Derrick Nix was not the best player in MSU's lineup last year, but he was incredibly important at defending guys down low, snagging rebounds, and in the low post game. However, he was also important in allowing Payne to do things like shoot from the outside and matchup against smaller defenders. Without Nix in the lineup, Payne is going to have to carry more of the load in the frontcourt. Sometimes a player can handle the extra load, but there are also situations where it stems their game and limits their opportunities. For instance, if Payne is forced to live under the basket, having an outside shot probably isn't that useful.
In my opinion, MSU will go as far as Payne can take them, but if MSU can find another player upfront that's productive enough to allow Payne to take some of those opportunities in other parts of the court, this team could be really good. Maybe Costello or Gauna steps up, but as the year goes along, I really do believe that MSU will gradually lean on that smaller lineup more frequently. Izzo likes to play big and outrebound people, but the roster just doesn't seem to matchup with this concept as well this year, unless of course a Costello or Gauna takes that next step. Otherwise, you're putting a Costello or Gauna on the floor instead of a Valentine or Trice. MSU will be good regardless of whether MSU can help Payne upfront or not, but this question could ultimately be the difference between another Sweet Sixteen run and another title for the Spartans.
The Spartans are one of the most proven teams in the conference, but will have to address some questions upfront. The good news is that they return one of the most dynamic players in the nation in Adreian Payne. The bad news is that there's no proven starter to come in next to him. However, there is certainly no lack of options to insert next to Payne, not only in player choices, but also in lineup choices. There will likely be some experimentation, but when all is said and done, MSU should have one of the better frontcourts in the Big Ten.