The bold predictions for the 2013-14 Michigan State Spartans were bold indeed. Like, national championship bold. With two eventual NBA draft picks and a third player picked up as a free agent, talent wasn’t the problem in East Lansing.
Health woes were what made last season a roller coaster for Sparty fans. It’s odd to consider that the team’s ultimate hustle guy, rising junior guard Denzel Valentine, was the only one to make it through the season unscathed, but that’s exactly what happened. No other Spartan suited up for every game last year.
Of course, injuries are the great variable in any sports team’s season, something that can’t be predicted. Of the things that can be predicted in advance, some sit right in front of us waving frantically and others like to hide until we pick them out with our highest-powered observational equipment.
For my BTP debut, allow me to pull out my XPRSH-2000 binoculars and examine Michigan State from every angle. We’ll find some promising things, some ominous things, and probably some stuff that Tom Izzo should have looked at.
1. Denzel Valentine plays himself into the 2015 NBA Draft
DraftExpress, one of the Internet’s most respected scouting sites, ranks Denzel Valentine 72nd…among all NCAA juniors. Not players overall, but members of the junior class. The site has not seen fit to compile a scouting report on Valentine, and generally doesn’t appear to consider him even a minor prospect. Now that Valentine’s a leader of this tradition-laden program instead of an occasional supporting piece, that should change.
We’ve all seen flashes of Valentine’s diverse skill set, with his 13-point, six-rebound, nine-assist night against Iowa standing out as a highlight. He can play any of the three perimeter positions, and can guard the occasional power forward if he has to. If he continues the radical improvement he made as a perimeter shooter last season and adds enough strength to become a more consistent finisher at the rim (49.3% at the rim per Hoop-Math.com, an unacceptable figure for a 6’5", 220-pound player), his scoring numbers will soar.
At times, Valentine has looked foolish trying for the home run plays that wind up on SportsCenter, but he actually trimmed his turnover percentage by 10 points as a sophomore and boasted a 2.1 assist/turnover ratio. Continued positive decision-making will allow Izzo a greater comfort level with using Valentine as an occasional point guard.
The potential is there for Valentine to rank among the Big Ten’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists (he was already 11th in rebounding last year). That kind of versatility for a top 25 program will certainly win him some professional attention.
2. Lourawls Nairn becomes a starter during conference play
Remember when I said we can’t predict injuries? It’s true, but after a few years, we come to expect them from certain players. Travis Trice has missed 16 games over his three seasons in East Lansing, so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the occasional dent and ding. Meanwhile, the speedy freshman Nairn has generated excitement from no less a Spartan authority than program icon Mateen Cleaves. Nairn isn’t the shooter that Trice is, but if his decision-making is solid, the former sprinter adds a different, higher gear to the offense. With other scoring options around him, a string of six- and seven-assist games from Nairn could make it hard for Trice to get his job back.
3. Bryn Forbes earns All-Big Ten notice
The Cleveland State transfer shot a sizzling 45.5% from long range over the second half of last season. While Big Ten defenses aren’t as forgiving as those in the Horizon League, the best shooters are gonna shoot when they’ve got even the slightest look. And Forbes is certainly one of college basketball’s best shooters. He’s got a built-in chemistry with former high school teammate Valentine, and he’ll fit well as a spot-up sniper in the mold of Florida’s Michael Frazier.
Forbes’ major question mark will be defense. An inability to get stops will get even the most talented shooter stapled to Tom Izzo’s bench. If Forbes showcases the strength to slow down Big Ten scoring threats, he should get enough minutes to thrive as a double-digit scorer. Best-case scenario? He leads the Spartans in scoring and draws some All-Big Ten votes. Worst-case? He's Brandon Wood, and Brandon Wood wasn't terrible.
4. No one steps up to support Branden Dawson in the post
Potential is all over junior Matt Costello, but that potential has only manifested itself in flashes over his first two seasons. The Bay City baller has had a rough time getting into any rhythm due to his own tendency toward foul trouble. Costello hacked folks at a pace of 5.6 per 40 minutes last season, most among MSU's 300-minute men. He finished with more fouls than rebounds in nine separate games. Sophomore Gavin Schilling's struggles were even greater, as he was whistled for 8.4 fouls/40. Schilling's nadir came early, with a combined 12 fouls in 26 minutes in consecutive games against Texas, New Orleans and Penn State. The Privateers fouled him out completely in only nine minutes.
Without the services of the retired Alex Gauna (not that he was a major contributor, either, but he was another big body), Costello and Schilling are all that stand between Izzo and the stress of fielding a four-guard lineup in the Big Ten. Izzo's defense demands aggression, but it has to be controlled, especially with the likes of Frank Kaminsky, A.J. Hammons, Aaron White and Anthony Lee on the schedule. Dawson needs some help, otherwise...
5. Dawson struggles with the pressure
A man who busts up his hand by punching a table during a film session can charitably be called "emotional." Dawson has a large burden on his shoulders, as both the team's emotional leader and primary muscle. I was at Louisville's media day scrimmage last weekend, and the major story was Montrezl Harrell taking charge, at one point screaming for his unraveling teammates to "Calm down!" Dawson is likely to fill the same role, and he's done enough in a Spartan uniform to rate plenty of respect. However, keeping the same emotions that boiled over in that film session in check will sometimes be a tough task. There will be games in which Dawson crushes all who oppose him en route to 20 and 10, but there will also be nights when he shows visible frustration with the lack of support.