There's been no shortage of drama in the Michigan State basketball season so far. After cruising over McNeese State in the opener, the Spartans made their bid for a No. 1 national ranking by blowing out Kentucky in the first half of their Champions Classic clash. The second half of that game wasn't nearly as impressive, but it didn't matter as MSU held on for the win.
I think the "hangover" effect in sports is a myth, especially when a coach as seasoned as Tom Izzo is in play. That made it very difficult for me to explain away too-close-for-comfort wins over Columbia and Portland in the week following the big Kentucky win. The Spartans recovered, though, to soundly defeat Virginia Tech and Oklahoma in Brooklyn's Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Are the Spartans the team that has looked solid against three power conference opponents so far, or the one that struggled to defeat mid-majors at home? Based on the amount of talent on board, I'm going to err on the side of "solid", and here are five reasons why.
1. Can Keith Appling keep up his improved shooting?
I admit it. I've never been much of an Appling fan. He's been touted as one of the Big Ten's great point guards for a while now, and yet in what world has he been than my beloved Tim Frazier? Appling has shot around 42 percent from the field for the last two seasons while topping out at 13.4 points per game in 2013. The assists haven't been great either. As a junior last year, Appling handed out just 3.3 dimes compared to 2.3 turnovers per game. Those aren't elite figures by any means.
But hey, this November Appling has dominated in a way that we've only seen sparingly in his career. He's hitting 56 percent of his shots and knocking down a ridiculous 57 percent of his three-pointers (including a 5-for-5 night versus Portland). Appling has scored over 20 points in three of Michigan State's games so far, and two of those were against the two best teams on the slate, Oklahoma and Kentucky. Add in that the senior has dished out at least six assists in four of six games so far, and we've got an epic season in the making.
2. Michigan State could have three all-conference players on its roster
As incredible as Appling has been so far, he's just one of three members on MSU's all-awesome team. The other two guys probably should be in the NBA right now. Last season's freshman sensation Gary Harris is scoring 17.7 points per game right now and he hasn't even gotten his three-point shot down yet. He's only hitting on 26.5 percent of his tries from beyond the arc, but once he starts approaching the 41 percent he shot in 2013, the Sparty party will begin in earnest.
The reason I'm so sure that Harris's three-point percentage will increase? That's Adreian Payne, the 6'10" beast on the inside who can score from the post as well as from beyond the arc. Payne lets Michigan State take advantage of the opponent's lineup in multiple ways. He can post up smaller opponents before choosing between scoring or kicking out to Harris. He can also draw larger foes outside and burn them with his shooting. Even if you take Appling out of the equation, Payne and Harris are enough to give opposing coaches nightmares this season.
3. Branden Dawson is all rebounds and dunks, and that's okay.
We've established that this Michigan State team has three superstar players. After that, you really just need a few good role players to round out a very competitive roster. That's why I'm not too disappointed that Dawson is not going to be anything more than a terrific defender who rebounds, outlets the ball, runs the floor, and dunks. Maybe on another team he could be more than that, but on this Spartan squad, there are too many other players who deserve the ball in their hands.
Plus, it's not as though Dawson hasn't improved from last year. He's pumped up his offensive and defensive rebounding games so that he's now averaging 9.7 boards per game in just under 30 minutes. That's pretty impressive for a dude who stands 6'6", but it also goes to show how athletic Dawson is. He should be able to guard multiple positions this season as well as continue to be an emphatic finisher in transition.
4. Matt Costello needs to be on the bench more often.
Okay, the sophomore big man isn't hogging a ton of minutes, but it also doesn't make sense that he's been in the starting lineup for every game this season. Besides size, the one thing Costello has is rebounding ability, and he's only grabbing an average of 3.5 of those in 14.5 minutes per game. I don't see any reason why he's not splitting time equally with junior forward Alex Gauna. Either way, the starting lineup is plenty big enough with Appling, Harris, Dawson, Payne, and Denzel Valentine starting. Maybe Costello could be inserted against bigger teams, but those teams would have to be really big.
5. Valentine is the Swiss army knife that his team doesn't even need.
Probably the best "bench" player in the conference, Valentine is showing signs of improving on a pretty impressive freshman season. You don't often see wings as big as Valentine be able to pass the way he can, but he's averaging 3.5 assists in just 23 minutes per game. Although Valentine isn't the most efficient shooter in the world, his ability to score, pass, and rebound makes him a versatile weapon who can back up multiple positions.
One thing Michigan State would like Valentine to do more of is attack the basket. With Appling, Harris, Payne, and backup guard Travis Trice all able to shoot from long distance, this team could fall into the trap of not attack the basket enough (only 13 free throw attempts versus Portland). Valentine could help out with that because his combination of size and quickness creates match-up problems for less gifted teams.
- BTP Team of the Week, Volume II
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- Preview: Minnesota vs. Syracuse - Can Austin Hollins Solve The Zone?
- Five Key Takeaways: Ohio State: How Much Can Scott & Della Valle Help The Backcourt?
- Around the Conference: Is Michigan in Trouble?