Michigan State enters the 2013-2014 season ranked #2 in the nation. For those who haven't followed the Spartans very closely, the backcourt is one of the main reasons why MSU has achieved this ranking. Not only do the Spartans return 3 starters here, but they also return several experienced bench options and add a new recruit into the fold. It's not hard to argue that MSU has the best backcourt in the Big Ten and without a doubt has the most proven backcourt in the conference. So can the Spartans use this strength to make another postseason run?
The Spartans bring back 3 experienced starters in the backcourt: Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Branden Dawson. Each is a proven contributor and has started for at least one full season in East Lansing. Appling returns for his senior season as a multiple year starter leading last year's team in scoring at 13.4 points per game along with 3.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds, and 33.6 minutes per game. The one struggle Appling has had during his career at MSU is with turnovers. He averaged 2.3 turnovers per game last year, which may not sound significant, but is pretty big considering he averaged only 1 more assist than turnover last season. The good news for Appling is that there are more options around him to take the offensive load and more options off the bench, which will allow him to be used in more versatile ways. Plus, he still is one of the best offensive weapons on MSU.
Next to Appling will be last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris. Harris was one of the best players for MSU last year and frankly, there's a reason why many viewed him as the best player on a deep and experienced roster late in the year. Despite struggling with shoulder troubles throughout the season, Harris averaged 12.9 points per game and shot an impressive 41% from outside the arch throughout the season. To further this, Harris has a true shooting percentage of 63% and an effective field goal percentage of 57.8% according to Basketball Reference. If he increases his usage (22.1% last year) and still maintain his efficiency, Harris could easily end up being 1st team All-Big Ten and perhaps even Big Ten Player of the Year. The biggest question will be around Harris' shoulder injury. Most expect him to improve, but the jump from being the Big Ten's best freshman to best player is certainly a tough one to make. The expectations are high, but the potential is certainly there.
Finally, Branden Dawson returns for MSU. Dawson also struggled with recovering from an injury and most believe this limited his contributions. Dawson certainly was solid, but he was without a doubt the weakest player in MSU's starting lineup last season. Despite being used more (20.2%) than Derrick Nix (19.9%) and just shy of Payne's usage rate (20.7%), Dawson scored the fewest points of any in the starting lineup, had the fewest win shares per 48 minutes, and had the lowest offensive rating according to Basketball Reference. This certainly isn't a huge problem considering the talent in MSU's lineup, but it does show room for improvement. If Dawson can get that extra jump back from his injury, he could likely take that next step.
The final thing to note for the starting lineup here is that Izzo could likely play small as the season continues. This would involve sliding a player like Dawson to the 4 and bringing either Denzel Valentine or Travis Trice off the bench. Valentine appears to be the most likely option here considering he played more minutes and was generally more productive than Trice last season. However, Trice does seem to have improved during the offseason. Both are solid bench options and will likely get some significant minutes.
The big options here are Valentine and Trice as listed earlier. Valentine is a sophomore that averaged 20.8 minutes last season and Trice is junior that averaged 18.6 minutes last season. Both are experienced players and could probably play the 1 or the 2 if necessary. The interesting thing here will be if one of these players comes in at the point and allows Appling to play the 2, Harris to play the 3, and Dawson to play the 4. It's a dynamic lineup that could score from any position if necessary. Plus, less ball handling from Appling, one would think that his turnover issue would disappear.
Outside of these two, Russel Byrd and Alivin Ellis III could receive time. Byrd has long been projected to be a factor in MSU's lineup, but just has never seemed to put it all together. At 6'7" and 205 lbs, he is a dynamic player that can create mismatches. Maybe this is the year he puts it all together. Ellis is a true freshman, but has received some praise and is rated as a 3* by 247Sports. The biggest question will be whether Ellis redshirts. He seems to have the talent to play early, but MSU has a ton of depth and experience in the backcourt. Given how many options will likely be in front of Ellis, one would think that Ellis would at least be projected to redshirt.
Final players to note are Dan Chapman and Keenan Wetzel. These two played a grand total of 17 minutes last season so don't expect a ton of on-court action, but these players should provide a boost during practice to a team looking to compete against the best. Chapman is a senior from Okemos, Michigan and Wetzel is a junior from Monroe, Michigan.
Biggest Question: How Much Can Gary Harris Improve?
All offseason, the storyline for the Spartans has been Gary Harris' improvement and recovery from injury. There's no doubt that getting healthy should help his game. The question will just be how much it helps his game. If he can recover as many hope, MSU could be one of the best teams in the nation and perhaps even the best. The Spartans were a talented and deep team last season, but they desperately needed that top scoring option to emerge. Harris could be "that" guy this year. There will always be a game in an NCAA Tournament run where one player simply needs to step up and win the game. MSU didn't have that last year, but they could with Harris this season.
The question is whether Harris will improve enough to take that step. He struggled with a shoulder injury last year, but he had very little trouble shooting the ball, handling the ball, and certainly played a ton of minutes in the games that counted late in the year. Look for things like his conditioning and strength to improve with his shoulder. Some have pointed to an increased ability to rebound, but Harris is only 6'4". If MSU needs or wants Harris to be crashing the boards, things probably won't be going well. Essentially, in many of the top categories, Harris was already really productive so can he improve from that performance? We can't really know how far the recovery will take Harris' game, but is it a crucial question. The Spartans need a player that can take over when needed in the NCAA Tournament. This could be the difference between a Final Four run and another Sweet Sixteen performance.
MSU's backcourt is loaded. There is talent and experience everywhere. Though every player has some question marks entering this season and the lineup is not quite set, this is probably the best backcourt in the Big Ten. Most Spartans fans are looking for a great conference and NCAA Tournament performance and it all begins here.