The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.
The Michigan State Spartans have been one of the nation's most successful and consistent programs since head coach Tom Izzo took the helm. There have been ups and downs since Izzo took over and heading into last season, many believed that it was set to be a down year for Michigan State. Of course, the Spartans ultimately went on to go 27-12 and the program returned to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.
Now, the Spartans will hope to build off last year's surprising run to the Final Four and take the next step as a team. After all, even with 27 overall wins last year, Michigan State was never truly in Big Ten title contention and was almost undeniably the weakest team that made last year's Final Four. The good news is that with some key returners and Izzo's outstanding 694-495 (.713) record at Michigan State, the team should be expected to be good yet again.
The departures of Branden Dawson and Travis Trice are certainly significant losses, but with players like Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, and Denzel Valentine, there is a proven core for Michigan State. Additionally, newcomers like Deyonta Davis and Eron Harris are expected to make instant impacts this season. On paper, this looks like a very talented team with improved depth that has the chance to contend on a national level.
Nonetheless, there will be question marks. To start, finding a player that can create offensively like Trice did will not be easy. After all, Trice was one of the biggest contributors in Michigan's State's Final Four run. Along with this, the frontcourt will have question marks with Dawson's absence and the mixed play from others last season. There are options on the roster to replace the departures, but these will be questions heading into this season.
Overall, this is a Michigan State team that may actually could be deeper and more talented than last year. However, the question will be whether the team's top players can be good enough to carry the Spartans to that next level. Regardless, this looks like a talented Michigan State team that should make plenty of noise in the Big Ten.
With that, let's take a look at the Spartans.
BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast
Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Michigan State Spartans, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Spartans featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Adam Biggers of Today's U breaking down Michigan State's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.
1. 2014-15 Season Performance
- Record: 27-12 (12-6)
- KenPom Team Rating: #15
- RPI Rating: #23
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament
Last year was a season that had incredible highs and lows for the Spartans. Of course, Michigan State ultimately ended up finishing on a very high note with a Final Four appearance. The preseason predictions anticipated that the Spartans would see some regression due to the losses of players like Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne, so Michigan State ended up massively outperforming most expectations.
Overall, it's hard to characterize last season as anything other than a successful one. The Spartans finished near the top of the Big Ten, narrowly lost to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament final, and made the Final Four following wins over teams including Louisville, Oklahoma, and Virginia. However, the progression of the season was incredible. After all, the Spartans had an unimpressive non-conference performance, lost to Texas Southern at home, and had painful home losses to Illinois, Maryland, and Minnesota in conference play.
In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Michigan State:
Michigan State's performance during the 2014-15 certainly met and exceeded the vast majority of preseason and midseason expectations. Though they had some really rough trip-ups during the season, it's hard not to think a third place conference finish, a runner-up finish in the Big Ten Tournament, a Final Four appearance, and 27 overall wins was anything other than a remarkable success.
Thanks to the team's ability to create outside shots, hold onto the ball, and defend around the hoop, the Spartans were able to compete with the top teams. What's interesting is that outside of a home upset against Minnesota - that was at least partially due to missed free throws - the only losses for Michigan State in their final 16 games of the season came against Duke and Wisconsin, who played for the national championship. Certainly a telling stat about how the team played late in the year.
Of course, there does have to at least be an acknowledgment of the consistency issues. Obviously, the loss to Texas Southern was a nightmare, but there were also several losses in Big Ten play that prevented MSU from really reaching that next level. In fact, if they had simply been able to hold off Maryland at home in a loss that went to double-overtime, they would have been tied with the Terps in conference record. Add in the rough losses to Illinois and Minnesota at home and the road loss to Nebraska and there were definitely some missed opportunities.
Nonetheless, even if MSU bloodied its nose during the regular season, it's hard to really think that many care about a loss to a team like Minnesota at home when they will have a Final Four banner to hang next fall. It's kind of like a boring scene during the middle of a great movie. You don't like it, but nobody really cares when all is said and done because the ending is so awesome that it overrides any of those issues. MSU had its issues and it hurt it numerous times during the season, but it's really impressive play late in the year made up for virtually all of those issues.
The Spartans were an odd team last year. In fact, there really wasn't any narrative or script to the season. This wasn't a team that started bad and improved over the year or played well all season and took that success into the postseason. It was a team that went up and down seemingly at random that just happened to play its best basketball in the NCAA Tournament. It was a really good year for Michigan State, but also one that played out unusually.
Highlights of the season included wins over Iowa, Ohio State, and season sweeps of Indiana and Michigan, a win over Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament, and the run to the Final Four. Low points of the season included the loss to Texas Southern in non-conference play, home losses to Illinois and Minnesota, and a road loss to Nebraska.
Individual statistical leaders were Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine. Dawson led the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks. Trice led the team in minutes, points, assists, and usage. Valentine led the team in total win shares.
2. Offseason Exits
Since the start of last season, Michigan State lost a total of four players for various reasons. These players were Trevor Bohnoff, Brandon Dawson, Travis Trice, and Keenan Wetzel. Three of these players graduated and Bohnhoff opted to depart from the team. There isn't much debating that Dawson and Trice are the biggest departures, as Bohnhoff and Wetzel combined for just 54 minutes on the season.
The losses of Dawson and Trice will likely be significant hits to the Spartans this season. Even from a broad perspective, each player contributed massively last year. The two players finished in the top three on the roster in minutes, win shares, field goal attempts, points, and steals. There isn't much debating that Dawson and Trice were two of the best three players on the roster and the stats certainly back that up.
Individually, the Spartans are likely losing the team's best defender in Dawson and its best offensive creator in Trice. Dawson was a physical player upfront that could lock down opponents either inside or on the perimeter. Additionally, Trice led the team in field goal attempts and assists. In fact, Trice led the entire roster in points produced last season. Essentially, this isn't just about two guys that played a lot of minutes departing. Dawson and Trice not only outstanding players, but were two of the best and biggest contributors on Michigan State's roster.
As mentioned earlier, the losses of Bohnhoff and Wetzel are not very significant from an on court perspective. Both players combined to average less than five minutes per game and scored a grand total of five points during the season. There's just not much spinning one can do to make those numbers seem noteworthy.
Overall, the Spartans aren't losing many significant players, but the ones the team is losing will be big hits to the team's production. Though Michigan State returns plenty of talent and adds some newcomers as well, it's not going to be easy to find another Dawson or another Trice. It's going to take a handful of players stepping up at different positions to try and make up for these departures.
3. New Additions
This season, the Spartans are adding three new recruits, one transfer, and a preferred walk-on. These freshmen newcomers are Kyle Ahrens, Deyonta Davis, and Matthew McQuaid. Davis and McQuaid are rated as four-star prospects and Ahrens is rated as a three-star prospect according to 247Sports. Ahrens and McQuaid are listed as shooting guards and Davis is listed as a power forward.
Davis is pretty easily the recruit receiving the most attention this offseason. He has a tremendous combination of athleticism, length, and size and is expected to be an instant contributor in East Lansing. There are questions about whether he is a better fit at power forward or center for the Spartans, but there isn't much doubt that he will see the floor early and often for Michigan State.
McQuaid and Ahrens are also considered to be players who could make an impact going forward. In fact, McQuaid has earned high praise from his teammates so far this preseason and might have a bigger impact for the Spartans than many had previously assumed. Ahrens will have to fight for time, but has a shot to have an impact. Finally, the addition of Connor George as a preferred walk-on is also a notable one that could impact the team long-term.
Along with the recruiting additions, Michigan State will be adding a transfer in Eron Harris from West Virginia. He actually transferred before last season, but had to sit out 2014-15 due to NCAA transfer rules. Now, he will be eligible to enter the lineup and should be a serious candidate to be one of Michigan State's best players.
Harris is best known for his shooting skills. During his last season with the Mountaineers, he hit an impressive 42.2 percent from three point range and was one of the better offensive players in the country. Michigan State will be looking for him to take some of the lost contributions from Travis Trice.
Overall, Michigan State is set to bring in a pretty talented group of newcomers that legitimately could see two players start this season in Davis and Harris. Seeing how players like Ahrens and McQuaid develop will tell a lot about this group long-term, but this is a talented group that should make a significant impact for the Spartans in the future.
4. Team Strengths
Michigan State's roster is certainly going to go through some major transitions this offseason, but in total, this should have some major similarities to last season. Particularly, the Spartans should be one of the better offensive teams in the country and could be set up to be an elite three point shooting team.
Generally, many perceive Michigan State as a physical team that relies on its rebounding and defense to win it games. All in all, that's probably not a bad generalization on a yearly basis. However, last season did not fall into that category and this year probably won't either. Michigan State was an offensively driven team and likely will remain one heading into this season.
In fact, the Spartans came in at No. 15 in offensive efficiency last season and were one of the better shooting teams in the country. Michigan State was No. 40 in effective field goal percentage and was generally very efficient offensively. This was driven by players like Bryn Forbes and Travis Trice.
Notably, the area where Michigan State did much of its damage was from long range. Overall, the Spartans came in at No. 29 nationally in three point percentage and No. 88 in percentage of team points from three point range. This was a team that relied quite a bit on its outside shooting to carry it last season.
On paper, one might think that this shooting would regress with the loss of Travis Trice, but there are actually a lot of reasons to think the Spartans remain elite in this area. To start, Bryn Forbes and Denzel Valentine both return and both were in the top three on the team in three point attempts. Along with this, the additions of Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid might even allow Michigan State to improve its long range shooting.
There are certainly going to be transitions for the Spartans this season, but given the returns and newcomers on the team, this still looks to be an offensively driven team that relies on three point shooting. If so, Michigan State could be one of the more exciting and difficult teams to defend in the Big Ten this season.
5. Team Weaknesses
The Spartans will certainly have some strengths, but the team is also set to have some major question marks heading into this season. Notably, some areas of concern will be at the free throw line and Michigan State's ability to force turnovers defensively.
Undeniably, the biggest weakness of last year's Michigan State's team was its performance on the free throw line. The Spartans were not only one of the weaker teams in the country at getting to the free throw line, but it was also dreadful once the team got there. In fact, Michigan State had just one player finish in the top 20 of the Big Ten in free throw rate, finished at No. 283 in ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts, and No. 338 in free throw percentage.
Michigan State will lose one of its worst free throw shooters in Branden Dawson, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. After all, a team doesn't come in at No. 338 nationally in free throw percentage just because of one player. Some of the other players to struggle in this area last season were Javon Bess, Alvin Ellis, Tum Tum Nairn, and Gavin Schilling. One would expect Michigan State to improve here, but it might not be by as much as some would hope.
Another area where the Spartans will likely need to show improvement is in the team's ability to force turnovers on the defensive end. Michigan State came in at just No. 312 in turnovers on defense and No. 282 in steal rate. The Spartans were not a bad defensive team overall, but this was an area where the team was far from great.
Similar to Michigan State's free throw shooting, this is another area that will be impacted by Branden Dawson's departure. Unfortunately, unlike free throw shooting, this will likely be impacted negatively. Not only was Dawson the leader for Michigan State in steal rate, but was actually the only player on the roster to finish in the top 30 in the Big Ten in this category. Perhaps one of the newcomers like Deyonta Davis can make an impact here because otherwise this could be an area where the Spartans have quite a bit of trouble.
Neither of these areas will likely be enough to hold Michigan State back alone, but they are areas where the Spartans can show improvement this year. If so, it would give the team the ability to compete with some of the Big Ten's other top teams and in the national picture.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, the Spartans were expected to have a two or three-headed monster with Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine. These three were viewed as being a notch above the rest of the roster and for the most part, these predictions held up pretty well. All three had solid seasons and were pretty easily the best three players on the team by season's end. Of course, with Dawson and Trice departing, this puts Valentine in position to be the team's best player by a decent margin this season. He came in at #5 in the BTPowerhouse preseason Big Ten player rankings heading into this season.
The interesting thing about Valentine's play is that despite not leading the roster in any of the traditional major stats, he still led the roster in overall win shares. This is a testament to Valentine's diverse play on the court. He can score, shoot, rebound, pass, and defend. He's really not an elite player in any specific area, but his combination of skills make him one of the best players in the conference.
Although Valentine is undeniably going to be the favorite to be Michigan State's best player this year, there are a few others that could make some noise here. To start, Bryn Forbes played well last year and could expand his role further this season. Additionally, newcomers like Deyonta Davis and Eron Harris should be in position for breakout seasons in East Lansing.
Nonetheless, even with a few other options, it would be shocking if anybody outplayed Valentine on Michigan State's roster this season and if so, it would certainly be a big statement about the team's chances this year. Valentine should be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate and have an outside shot at All-American status.
7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/4 - Northern Michigan (Exhibition)
- 11/9 - Ferris State (Exhibition)
- 11/13 - Florida Atlantic
- 11/17 - Kansas (Chicago, Il.)
- 11/20 - Arkansas-Pine Bluff
- 11/23 - Eastern Michigan
- 11/26 - Boston College (Fullerton, CA)
- 11/27 - Boise State/UC-Irvine (Fullerton, CA)
- 11/29 - Arizona/Evansville/Providence/Santa Clara (Fullerton, CA)
- 12/2 - Louisville
- 12/5 - Binghamton
- 12/9 - Maryland-Eastern Shore
- 12/12 - Florida
- 12/19 - at Northeastern
- 12/22 - Oakland (Auburn Hills, MI)
- 12/29 - at Iowa
- 1/2 - at Minnesota
- 1/7 - Illinois
- 1/10 - at Penn State
- 1/14 - Iowa
- 1/17 - at Wisconsin
- 1/20 - Nebraska
- 1/23 - Maryland
- 1/28 - at Northwestern
- 1/31 - Rutgers
- 2/6 - at Michigan
- 2/9 - at Purdue
- 2/14 - Indiana
- 2/18 - Wisconsin
- 2/23 - at Ohio State
- 2/28 - Penn State
- 3/2 - at Rutgers
- 3/(5/6) - Ohio State
Unsurprisingly, Michigan State has set itself up for what appears to be a pretty challenging non-conference schedule. The Spartans are going to face several teams in top 25 consideration and even a few that could be in the national championship picture by season's end. That doesn't even include games away from home against decent teams like Northeastern and Oakland that could be tricky.
The significant games on this non-conference schedule include the neutral site game against Kansas, the Wooden Legacy tournament, and the home games against Florida and Louisville. All told, the Spartans are probably looking at four or five games against teams that could have serious national aspirations this season.
To start, the matchup with Kansas is going to be a very tough game. The Jayhawks are considered to be a top five team nationally and Michigan State will very likely be an underdog in the game. The Wooden Legacy tournament also has Arizona, Boise State, and Providence in the field and will also pit the Spartans against a tricky Boston College team. Finally, even if Florida and Louisville are set to be down this year, those are not going to be easy games.
Realistically speaking, Michigan State is probably looking at somewhere between one to four non-conference losses. The fact of the matter is that the Spartans are going to be underdogs in at least one game, will have at least three or four more games against tough teams, and a few more against tricky teams. Most likely, Michigan State finishes with one or two losses in non-conference play, but the Spartans are going to need to play well to avoid too many losses.
Of course, Big Ten play for Michigan State will be a different animal. In total, Michigan State will play 13 of its 18 conference games against top 100 KenPom teams and six games against top 25 KenPom teams. The Spartans actually caught a few breaks in its conference schedule this year, but with the Big Ten, that doesn't mean much.
The good news is that Michigan State does have some places to start. With double-plays against Penn State and Rutgers and matchups against Minnesota and Nebraska, there's a pretty reasonable path to six wins without any huge wins. Along with this, with home games against Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State, getting to 10 conference wins doesn't look too difficult on paper. Michigan State also gets home games against Indiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin, so it's not even that hard to see a few more wins on the schedule.
Of course, it's probably not reasonable to think that Michigan State will win all of those games. With that in mind, this probably looks like a schedule that will allow 9 to 13 wins. There are opportunities to rack up the wins against bottom teams and by playing at home, but Michigan State will probably end up falling around 11 conference wins.
Overall, Michigan State has a pretty challenging schedule this season. The non-conference schedule will probably feature more challenging games than easy ones and the Big Ten looks absolutely loaded coming into this season. Michigan State has the pieces to do well on this schedule, but it will have its work cut out.
8. Projected Startling Lineup
PG: Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn (So.) - 60%
SG: Bryn Forbes (Sr.) - 75%
SF: Denzel Valentine (Sr.) - 95%
PF: Javon Bess (So.) - 70%
C: Matt Costello - (Fr.) - 55%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
The backcourt for Michigan State should be particularly interesting this season. At point guard, the return of Tum Tum will provide at least one known quantity. However, newcomer Matt McQuaid could also be a player that could be in the point guard picture. McQuaid appears to be trending up and could push Tum Tum for the starting nod. However, given Tum Tum's experience, look for him to start at least early on.
Alongside Tum Tum, there is going to be an interesting battle. Bryn Forbes had a solid 2014-15 season and appears to be set to lock down a starting role somewhere in the lineup. However, newcomer Eron Harris also looks to be in position for a solid season and will certainly be in contention for a starting role. Harris is going to get minutes somewhere in the lineup, but expect Forbes to start early. McQuaid could also be a bench factor here.
On the wing, there shouldn't be much drama. With Denzel Valentine's return, he should be able to lock down the small forward spot and lead the team into this season. Players like Marvin Clark and Alvin Ellis will likely be the primary options behind Valentine, but will also likely see their minutes limited as Valentine should average 30 or more minutes per game over this season.
At power forward, one of the more interesting players on Michigan State's team should be in position to grab the starting role. Javon Bess was limited last season due to injury, but was arguably the best incoming prospect for the Spartans and should be set for a breakout year. Clark could also play a role at power forward and incoming freshman Deyonta Davis might also see some time here.
Finally, at center, the competition will likely be between Matt Costello, Deyonta Davis, and Gavin Schilling. All three have talent and though Davis probably has the most upside, the question will be whether he is ready enough for this season to grab the starting role. Nonetheless, this team should be deeper at center than last year and Davis has the potential to be a dynamic big man for the Spartans.
The interesting thing about Michigan State's lineup this season is it appears to be immensely talented, but few spots are actually locked up. This is a rare feat to see a serious Big Ten contender with so many question marks in its lineup. It truly makes the Spartans are a relative wildcard compared to some of the other contenders. There's a lot of potential in the group and the question will be how long it takes for Izzo to tap into that talent.
Overall, Michigan State is set to have a quality starting lineup and plenty of depth this season. Starting spots are likely going to change at multiple positions this season, but Michigan State should still be able to put five quality players on the floor at all times.
9. Team Perspective From Adam Biggers of Today's U
"Honestly, it doesn't really matter who graduated and who's returning for the Michigan State Spartans-coach Tom Izzo is still around, and that's what matters most in East Lansing. He knows what to do and how to do it, regardless of the amount of star power on his roster.
Whether it's a Final Four or a Sweet 16, odds of a run through March always favor the Spartans, who should be among the top teams in the Big Ten in 2015-16. Competing with the top-third of the conference should be expected as the Spartans look to lay the foundation for an upcoming national title chase.
Michigan State needs work up front, so senior forward Matt Costello must assert himself-there's no other way to say it. When at full tilt, he's aggressive and difficult to handle. Other times, the 6'9″, 245-pounder seems to remove himself from the action.
Point guards make the offenses work in East Lansing, so it'll be on sophomore Lourawls "Tum-Tum" Nairn to continue maturing into his role as "quarterback." The 5'10," 175-pound speedster will have help from Valentine-the "quarterback" tag probably fits him a little better.
He's not a point guard, but the 6'5," 220-pound senior defies position. At this stage of the game, he's an extension of Izzo-the most important extension. Valentine knows each of the five spots and has clearly demonstrated the ability to run an offense without actually playing the 1. In 2014-15, he averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He's truly a do-all. Nairn and Valentine. Nairn and Bryn Forbes. Watch for those connections.
Visibly more muscular during the August practice session, Forbes, now a 6'4," 200-poundish senior, should bring more strength to an already strong offensive approach. Silky from 3-point land, great with the mid-range touch-Forbes offers several ways for Michigan State to get the job done.
Junior forward Gavin Schilling has been one of the most up-and-down players on Izzo's roster. Late this past season, Izzo said that the 6'9," 245-pound big man needed to "fall in love" with basketball. He can't just like it. He has to really love it. Marvin Clark, a sophomore forward, is recovering from a broken foot and could be available in November.
Guards Javon Bess, a sophomore, and Alvin Ellis III, a junior, have yet to make a mark, but Izzo expressed optimism while discussing their potential during the media practice event in August. Health will play a part, for Bess (foot) and Ellis III (ankle).
Not to mention willpower. For them, it's about playing smarter, more consistent basketball. And for a team that's revving up for another national championship run, it's sink or swim for anyone not on board with Izzo's plan." - Adam Biggers For Today's U.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Michigan State is coming off a surprisingly success season, but will be looking to achieve even more this year. Izzo has proven that he can keep the Spartans in the national picture and now, with a roster that could be even deeper and more talented than last year, expectations will be high yet again.
Though everything for the Spartans will revolve around Denzel Valentine, the team will have plenty of options including players like Javon Bess, Bryn Forbes, and Eron Harris. Virtually every position has multiple players that would be good enough to start on other teams and with the addition of a very talented 2015 recruiting class, Michigan State has filled the voids on its roster quite well.
Of course, finding a way to fit all that talent together is easier said than done. After all, even with high hopes, players like Deyonta Davis have yet to play a minute for the green and white. Fans are going to expect these players to make an instant impact, but asking a true freshman to attempt and fill lost contributions from players like Branden Dawson and Travis Trice is probably not a reasonable request.
Nonetheless, this is a deep and talented Spartans roster. There is depth and options at every position and with Denzel Valentine on the roster, Michigan State should have a star player that can elevate the team in the tough matchups during this season. The questions upfront limited expectations somewhat on Michigan State, but this still looks like a team that will contend at the top of the Big Ten.