Last year, Michigan State began the season on top of the college basketball world, after an impressive win over (then) #1 ranked Kentucky. Late in the Big Ten season, though, the Spartans struggled, dropping five of their last eight Big Ten games. Come March, they appeared to pull it together, convincingly winning the Big Ten Tournament and becoming the NCAA tourney's not-so-dark-horse pick.
After a win over #1 seeded Virginia, though, the Spartans were surprisingly upset by a Connecticut team that would go on to win a title, marking the first time any four-year player failed to reach a Final Four under Tom Izzo. MSU will look to avenge that disappointment, but the road won't be easy, with many uncertainties on the Spartans' roster this year.
Michigan State loses both of its leading scorers from last season in Gary Harris and Adreian Payne. Surely the Spartans will have two new leading scorers this season, but the loss Payne and Harris's 16 points per game apiece can't be ignored. The Spartans also lose Keith Appling, who (when healthy) could also create opportunities driving to the rim.
MSU's top returning scorer is Branden Dawson, who averaged 11.2 points per contest along with 8.3 rebounds. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine also return and will serve as scoring threats. Last year, though, those three benefited from the presence of Payne and Harris, who drew defenders and created shots for the rest of the team. This season, all three will have to become better shot creators. Dawson is poised for a big senior year, and Trice and Valentine have also flashed an ability to create shots by driving to the rim. Incoming transfer Bryn Forbes may be able to create scoring opportunities as well.
Payne wasn't the only big to leave MSU this offseason. Forwards Alex Gauna decided to end his basketball career before his senior season, while Kenny Kaminski was dismissed from the team in August. While neither Gauna nor Kaminski is completely irreplaceable, bodies are bodies, and the Spartans might be short on them this season.
Matt Costello figures to start at center, where Tom Izzo will count on him for the bulk of the rebounding. Branden Dawson, at 6'6", possesses the physicality to play at the four, but Spartan fans are also hoping he'll show off an improved jump shot. Off the bench, Gavin Schilling and Marvin Clark Jr. may make an impact, but both lack significant experience. One of these bigs will have to emerge as a scoring threat this season to provide close-range shots and take attention away from the Spartans' perimeter shooters.
Easy points on the table
Michigan State struggled from the free throw line at times in 2013-14, and that problem could intensify this year. Three Spartans shot above 80% from the line last year, but Travis Trice is the only one of those three who returns. No other player on the Spartans' roster shot above 70% last season.
Trouble at the charity stripe could be a major problem for the Spartans in close games, particularly in the postseason. Trice can't be the only dependable free throw shooter in those situations.
Nothin' is for sure, nothin' is for certain
For the past couple of years, the Big Ten has been arguably the strongest conference in the country, top to bottom. Don't expect that to change this year. Five Big Ten teams are ranked in the preseason AP top 25, with multiple others also receiving votes. With so much strength in the conference, few games on the Spartans' schedule shape up to be easy wins. Michigan State will undoubtedly be in many close games, making the difference between a 12-6 and 8-10 conference record quite narrow. Combined with the other problems facing the Spartans, the tough conference slate will force Michigan State to improve, and improve quickly.