Michigan State came close last season, but its loss to Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament East Region Final brought an end to head coach Tom Izzo's streak of bringing every four-year player under his watch to a Final Four. You'll have to excuse all of us not affiliated with the Spartans for not feeling too bad for Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, both of whom had terrific career under Izzo despite never reaching college basketball's biggest stage.
If Izzo and Michigan State fall short again, it will mean yet another class of Spartans to not see a Final Four, so you can bet the veteran coach is determined to get the program back where it belongs. That's going to be tough with Appling, Payne, and Gary Harris headed out the door, but there's still plenty of talent left over to make a serious run.
Rising senior Travis Trice is going to be the most important player in this department for the 2014-15 Spartans. As a great shooter (over 40 percent from beyond the arc for his career) who can also handle the ball and distribute, Trice will be asked to do a lot of things for Michigan State this season. Even if he doesn't break out into a star in his final year with the program, Trice is going to be a key player who will play lots of minutes throughout the campaign.
Whether Trice spends most of his time at the one or the two depends a lot on the development of incoming freshman Lourawls "Tum-Tum" Nairn. Pegged as one of the top high school point guards in the country, the 5'10" Nairn is extremely quick with the ball in his hands, and he could give opponents fits with his penetration skills. Another freshman who could see big minutes is Javon Bess. He's bigger and more physical than Nairn, but Bess also excels at getting to the basket. Neither of the two youngsters is a great shooter, but their athleticism could open things up for Trice and other marksmen.
One of those "others" could be Alvin Ellis, a shooting guard who was mildy effective in very limited minutes last year when he was a freshman. He's not the most exciting player in the world, but Ellis should provide depth at guard, where Michigan State is very young right now.
Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine are the forwards who will make or break Michigan State's 2014-15 destiny. Dawson is an undersized, yet super athletic power forward who rebounds and blocks shots much more effectively than his 6'6" frame would suggest. Late last season, he started to create more shots for himself and is looking like he could be one of the Big Ten's top players in 2014-15. Valentine, on the other hand, is more of a point forward who can do whatever Izzo needs him to do. Last season, he averaged 3.8 assists per game and shot 38 percent from three-point range. You can bet Valentine will see some time at point guard if Trice and Nairn aren't getting the job done.
Another forward who can stretch the floor for the Spartans is freshman Marvin Clark. He's more of a small forward than a power forward, but in a small lineup, Clark can cause matchup problems with his shooting and rebounding skills.
As for the large men that Michigan State is known for, it doesn't appear that the Spartans have one guy who can completely fill Payne's shoes. However, Matt Costello should provide plenty of shot blocking and rebounding from the center spot, and Gavin Schilling showed last year that he can be an intimidating shot blocker himself while running the floor like a gazelle. Add in a great shooting forward in Kenny Kaminsky and another big body in Alex Gauna, and you've got a big man rotation that is versatile enough to adapt to any situation.
SG: Trice, Bess, Ellis
SF: Valentine, Clark
PF: Dawson, Kaminski
C: Costello, Schilling, Gauna
This chart makes Michigan State look very thin at point guard, but keep in mind that both Trice and Valentine can fill in at the position should Nairn need some seasoning. The big concern about this team is its youth and the fact that none of the players posted huge numbers last season. However, the trio of Trice, Valentine, and Dawson showed star potential in 2013-14 and they will have a huge say in how far Michigan State goes this season. If one or more of the freshmen become big contributors, we might just have something special brewing in East Lansing.