Michigan State was the near unanimous pick to win the Big Ten this season, and it's easy to see why. Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, and Keith Appling form one of the most talented quartets in the country, let alone the Big Ten. They have size, can score from all over the floor, they're experienced, and they know how to play defense together. Throughout the non-conference schedule they've racked up some quality wins. They took down the Kentucky Wildcats in a neutral site meeting. The beat a surprisingly good Texas team on the road. And their neutral site victories over Virginia Tech and Oklahoma are a better pair of wins than many Big Ten teams can boast about right now.
But it wasn't all good for the Spartans. As talented as their starting five is, and as good as they can be when healthy, the Spartans are a bit of a thin team. Beyond Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice there isn't much left on the bench. Matt Costello opened the season as a starter, but has been sidelined with a case of mononucleosis since early December. Still, even with the players they've had in and out of the lineup, the Spartans have won far more often than they've lost against the best teams they've played.
What We Learned
Health will be the biggest concern for Tom Izzo. Izzo has already seen Gary Harris miss three games due to injury. Branden Dawson has missed a game. Matt Costello has missed four games. Though these injuries haven't played a major role for the Spartans yet, their only loss came when all three of these players were available against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Izzo can ill afford for these guys to miss games in conference play or in the postseason if Michigan State is to accomplish its lofty goals this season.
Michigan State creates offense by committee. Keith Appling deserves credit for becoming a much more prolific and efficient passer this season, but he has had plenty of help this year as well. At 19.5 assists per game, Michigan State assists the ball more often than any other team in the country. Gary Harris has improved his passing. Branden Dawson has improved vision. Denzel Valentine is a better creator. Everyone on the Spartans chips in and helps their teammates find easier scores. Adreian Payne is Michigan State's only starter with a negative assist to turnover ratio.
Defense is still the Spartans' calling card. With the offensive talent that Izzo has on this roster, its easy to understand why most of the Michigan State preseason previews focused on the amazing versatility of Gary Harris on the offensive end of the floor. A lot of writers stressed how important it was that Adreian Payne continued to improve his jumpshot and convert three-pointers. You still need to score to win, of course, but Izzo's best teams have always thrived when they made scoring difficult for opponents. With the offensive talent that this team has, Michigan State's stellar defensive numbers should be very encouraging to Spartan fans. Kenpom ranks Michigan State's defense 11th nationally, shockingly only good for 3rd in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Wisconsin respectively. That Michigan State has worked so well together defensively is especially impressive for a unit that has had to shift the allotment of playing time radically in light of injuries.
What to Watch For
How many games will Gary Harris miss? The super-talented sophomore has been dogged by injuries for as long as he has been at Michigan State. First it was a bum shoulder as a freshman. Then it was two bum shoulders as a freshman. Then he sprained an ankle in a pickup game this summer that has caused him to miss three games since then. Michigan State needs Harris to stay on the floor and regain his usually sharp shooting touch. They can't win the Big Ten without Harris.
How high can Adreian Payne rise? Derrick Nix was the one who said it last year. "Oladipo, he's no different from Dawson. Dawson's not on the draft board, Oladipo is in the top 15. Payne is 6-10, and he can do everything Zeller can do. He's not on the draft board, Zeller's in the top five." I can't say whether Payne ever believed that or took offense to not being listed on draft boards last year, but I can say with confidence that he has come back a much better, stronger player that will certainly get looks from NBA teams this spring. Payne shoots the ball with a ton of confidence. He's scorching the nets shooting .457 from three and .821 from the free-throw stripe. Payne is playing like an All-American right now and if he can keep it up he'll surely make Derrick Nix proud.
How deep will the Spartans be? Matt Costello has likely been displaced by Denzel Valentine, who has taken his spot in the starting lineup since Costello has been out. When Matt returns, he and Trice will probably be the only regular players off of the bench. There's more talent there, though. Kenny Kaminski has already sat out a redshirt year, and is capable of filling in on the wings in a pinch. Alex Gauna is older and experienced and could work for State in a pinch. Izzo will need some of these guys, at least a little bit, during conference play.
For the most part, the pundits had it right - Michigan State is the most talented team in the Big Ten and should win the conference title. Sure, the schedules are uneven and Wisconsin has a slightly easier lineup of teams to face in conference play, but even Sam Dekker isn't as good as Gary Harris and Michigan State has more talent overall. Michigan State's visit to the Kohl Center, the only regular season game between Wisconsin and State, will be huge. If the Spartans can keep their team healthy and they can manage to win a few road games in conference play, Michigan State is still a great bet to win the Big Ten.