When Tom Izzo looks back at his coaching career, he'll likely remember 2014 as one of his most trying years. The Spartans were as talented as any team in the country last season, but injuries to Branden Dawson and Keith Appling relegated them to a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament. There, MSU fell in the Elite 8 to eventual national champs UConn, breaking Izzo's incredible streak of sending every senior class to the Final Four.
The offseason hasn't been any kinder. Star big man Adreian Payne and point guard Keith Appling were lost to graduation, and sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris headed to the NBA. The dismissal of stretch power forward Kenny Kaminski wasn't expected. With guard Russell Byrd deciding to transfer and big man Alex Gauna reportedly set to retire, it looks like Michigan State will have lost six scholarship players from last season, four of whom had eligibility remaining.
Combine the departures with recruiting classes in 2013 and 2014 that ranked No. 74 and No. 50 respectively, according to 247 Sports, and it would be easy to see how Michigan State could be headed for a rebuilding year. While that still may ostensibly be true, it would be foolish to ever count out an Izzo team. He has simply churned out too many great squads over the years to ever be written off.
The Spartans finally got some good news on Wednesday when transfer Bryn Forbes was granted a hardship waiver that will allow him to play this season. As a sophomore at Cleveland State last season, Forbes became the Horizon League's sixth leading scorer by averaging 15.6 points per game on 42.4 percent shooting from three-point range.
The 6'3 guard will provide some much-needed scoring punch for MSU, likely from the starting lineup. Forbes posted an impressive 58.7 true shooting percentage last season and led Cleveland State by playing over 82 percent of the team's available minutes. He'll be a part of a three-pronged attack in the backcourt for Michigan State, and all three players can shoot the lights out.
Travis Trice finally has the reigns in his senior season after spending so much of his career watching Appling and Harris do their thing. The 6' guard has shot over 40 percent from three-point range all three seasons with the Spartans, including a career-high 43.4 percent from deep last season.
Denzel Valentine, a junior, will also be pushed into the spotlight. Valentine got some experience as a starter last season, shooting 37.7 percent from three-point range on three attempts per game. Valentine has enough size (6'5, 225 pounds) and diversity in his game to man the wing alongside Trice and Forbes. His rebounding (six per game last season) and passing (3.8 assists per game) will be asset for Izzo's team.
The shooting in the backcourt will open up plenty of space for star senior forward Branden Dawson, who should be one of the premier players in the Big Ten. Dawson has had to defer to Payne, Harris and Appling for as long as he's been in school, but there's no denying he's the best player on the team this time around.
Dawson is a bit undersized for a four-man at 6'6, 225 pounds. But he's a tenacious rebounder and he posted an offensive rebounding percentage of 13.0 (good for second in the Big Ten). Dawson's offensive rating of 123.3 led the team and placed fifth in the conference. With Trice, Valentine and Forbes all acting as willing and viable threats from deep, Dawson's inside-out game should shine.
The biggest question for Michigan State will be who mans the middle. Matt Costello, a junior, is likely to get the nod. He averaged only four points per game last season in a limited role, but at 6'9 and 250 pounds, he might be the best option Izzo has. Gavin Schilling, who played only six minutes per game as a freshman last season, will likely back him up. Schilling was highly touted early in his high school career when he came to Chicago's De La Salle High School from Germany, but only ended up as a three-star recruit even after spending his senior season at Nevada basketball factory Findley Academy.
Depth will be a concern, which may mean a three-player freshman class will be pushed into playing earlier than expected. Lourawls Nairn, a 5'10 point guard from Kansas, is the best of bunch, rated the No. 73 player in the class of 2014 by ESPN.
The Big Ten should be down a bit in general this year after a strong season a year ago. Wisconsin will be one of the best teams int the country, but it's wide open after that. Assuming Izzo does what he always does and gets the most out of an unheralded roster, there's no reason to think Sparty will be missing the tournament next season even in what looks like a transition year.
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