Entering last season, Spartan fans rejoiced to see the return of Adreian Payne, the senior power forward who came back to East Lansing to earn his degree and pursue a Final Four appearance. The Spartans were stopped just short of the latter goal, falling to Connecticut in the Elite Eight, but Payne was able to graduate as one of the better big men to play under coach Tom Izzo.
Payne, however, couldn't anchor the MSU frontcourt forever, and will play for the NBA's Atlanta Hawks this season. For Izzo, that leaves a substantial gap this season for an MSU program renowned for attacking the boards. And that wasn't the only significant loss for the Spartans: in August, we learned that promising forward Kenny Kaminski had been dismissed from the program. Additionally, junior forward Alex Gauna decided to end his playing career a year early, after averaging only 1.6 PPG in his junior season.
All of these departures leave MSU with more questions than answers entering the 2014-15 season, but the Spartans aren't without hope. Let's see who could pick up the slack this year:
Branden Dawson (F / Sr. / 6'6")
2013-14: 11.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG in 28.3 MPG
Ever since Dawson arrived at MSU in 2011, he has been well known for not just his athleticism, but also his toughness and willingness to attack the offensive glass, despite his 6'6" size. Dawson showed great promise in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, tallying 26 points against Harvard and 24 points in a Sweet 16 win against number 1 seeded Virginia. However, he seemed to disappear against Connecticut, scoring just 5 points in a losing effort.
Michigan State will need Dawson to be a constant presence this year, as may be both the Spartans' top scoring and rebounding threat. Reports indicate that Dawson has also improved his jump shot this offseason, potentially making him an all-around threat. Nevertheless, given the Spartans personnel situation, Dawson will frequently be tasked with playing the 4 this year.
Matt Costello (F / Jr. / 6'9")
2013-14: 4.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG in 14.7 MPG
Costello enters his junior year as the Spartans' most experienced "true" big man, if one considers Dawson as more of a true small forward than a power forward. Costello will need to make major improvements if he is to contain national talents such as Jahlil Okafor, who Costello will be tasked with guarding when Michigan State faces Duke on Nov. 18 in the Champions Classic.
Costello won't need to be a major scoring threat this year, but he'll need to show some ability to create his own shots in order to keep defenses from swarming MSU's perimeter shooters. Costello could also improve defensively, where he has shown promise, averaging 1.3 blocks per contest in 2013-14.
(F / So. / 6'9")
2013-14: 1.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG in 6.4 MPG
A late addition to the 2013 Michigan State recruiting class, Schilling surprised some who thought he would take a redshirt year. Though the freshman never earned extensive playing time, Izzo noted Schilling's improvement over the course of the season. Like Costello, Schilling still needs to improve defensively to become a reliable option. Look for Coach Izzo to give him plenty of opportunities for improvement in the non-conference slate.
Marvin Clark Jr. (F / Fr. / 6'6")
2013-14: N/A (Sunrise Christian Academy)
Clark Jr, the freshman from Kansas, chose Michigan State in March over offers from Indiana, Kansas State, and Oregon, among others. He, like Schilling, was initially expected to take a redshirt year, though that assumption has come into question lately. Clark has impressed Tom Izzo with his outside shooting ability and remarkable strength, leaving the possibility for playing time this season.
Kenny Goins (F / Fr. 6'6")
2013-14: N/A (Warren Mott)
Goins signed with the Spartans in April as a preferred walk on, but will have the potential to emerge for MSU as he progresses. At the in-state Warren Mott, Goins averaged 21 points and 15 boards per contest. At this point, Goins seems destined for a redshirt year, but his presence will provide some security in case injuries affect the Spartans big men.
Overall Grade: B-
The Spartans still have a formidable starting five, including one of the Big Ten's best in Branden Dawson. However, the roster behind those five will be thin unless new names can emerge during non-conference play. Outside of Duke and Wisconsin, few teams will be able to completely overwhelm the Spartans in the paint, but the development of players like Costello, Schilling, and Clark may determine where Michigan State goes in March.