Only four more to go! (I won't be doing Michigan because, well, you already know everything.) This week, I'll take a look back at the 2013-14 Spartans, who advanced to the Elite Eight before ultimately falling against the eventual national champion UConn Huskies.
So, what happened this season?
The 2013-14 season truly was a tale of two seasons, the epoch of belief and incredulity.
The Spartans began their season with a big win against a then-No. 1 (albeit very green) Kentucky squad, 78-74, at the United Center in Chicago, paced by huge games from the three-headed attack of Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.
From there, they cruised through the rest of the nonconference schedule, the lone blemish coming against an inscrutable North Carolina team by 14 at the Breslin Center on Dec. 4.
Nonetheless, the good times continued, with a 7-game winning streak to start the conference slate, which included overtime wins against then-No. 3 Ohio State and Minnesota.
Then the Wolverines rolled into East Lansing on Jan. 25, delivering the Spartans their first loss. However, they were without the services of Payne and rebounding and defensive specialist Branden Dawson.
With the paradoxical anger-relief that comes with that first loss, MSU then went to Iowa City and landed a big 71-69 overtime win, still without Payne and Dawson. Oddly, they then went on to bookend that win with a loss against a poor Georgetown squad at MSG four days later.
With that strangely placed nonconference tilt in the books, the Spartans then went 4-5 the rest of the way, with losses at Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin, and at home against Illinois and Nebraska. Payne was back for the second loss against Michigan-- Dawson's impact was perhaps only understood when he returned for the conference tournament.
There, the Spartans knocked off Northwestern and Wisconsin in impressive fashion, than thumped Michigan even more impressively in the final, holding the Wolverines to a measly 55 points. In that win, Dawson scored 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting and snagged six rebounds in 24 minutes.
Heading into the Big Dance at full strength, things looked far rosier than they did during that 4-5 stretch. There, they rolled through Delaware and Harvard, then squeaked by B1G-team-in-spirit Virginia, setting up a matchup with Shabazz Napier's Huskies.
Despite leading at the half, the Spartans were outscored by 10 in the second--Napier went off for 25 of UConn's 60 points. Harris was the only Spartan to play well on the offensive end, as Appling and Dawson were relative non-factors in the points column and Payne, scoring 13, shot just 4-for-14 from the field. Most importantly, the Spartans couldn't get anything going down low, instead launching 29 of their 46 shots from beyond the arc--not a bad strategy for a team that shoots it so well from outside, but that shot percentage forces you to live on the edge, especially in a high-pressure tournament setting in which the rims get smaller without warning and that orange orb can feel like a bowling ball.
While any season that doesn't end in a Final Four might be a disappointment for the MSU basketball program, a Big Ten tournament title and an Elite Eight appearance in the same season is nothing at which to scoff.
- Although the offense sputtered against UConn, MSU finished 4th in the league during Big Ten play in PPP (1.13). Meanwhile, they were third-best in PPP allowed.
- They only trailed Michigan in eFG% (54.3).
- The Spartans didn't much like the charity stripe this season--they were third-worst in the league in free throw rate (33.4).
- From beyond the arc, however, they were lethal, with a conference-best team mark of 41.4 percent.
- As usual, the Spartans cleaned up on the glass; they were fourth in ORB% and first in DRB%.
- Despite boasting a senior point guard, MSU was tied with Nebraska at 9th in turnover percentage. On the defense end, they were fifth in turnover percentage, behind Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Ohio State.
- At 38.8 percent, Harris was third in the league from beyond the arc. He was also a factor on the defensive end (4th in steal percentage).
The big losses, of course, are Payne, Harris and Appling. In retrospect, Appling had a disappointing senior season, but a senior point guard is a senior point guard, not to mention the fact that he did come up big for MSU on numerous occasions this past season.
Returning are point guard Travis Trice, Dawson, forwards Kenny Kaminski (not that Kaminsky), Alex Gauna, Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello.
Denzel Valentine also returns; he averaged 8.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg last season, while shooting a sterling 37.7 percent from downtown.
In the 2014 class, Tom Izzo signed 3-star SF Javon Bess, 3-star SF Marvin Clark Jr. and 4-star PG Lourawls Nairn--Clark and Nairn both hail from the same school in Bel Aire, KS, so if at least one of these guys isn't dubbed the Fresh Prince, I will be very, very upset.
Standing at 5 feet, 11 inches tall, Nairn received Big Ten offers from Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana, plus Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Creighton. Trice will probably drive the car at first, but the expectations for Nairn will be high in 2014-15, as the Spartans look to replace a longtime starter in Appling. While Michigan has been lucky to have good to elite point guard play in recent years, that is more the exception than the norm.
He's not as tall as Appling, yes, but it does sound like he can bring some defense, which he will obviously need to do to play for Izzo:
Likely the fastest player in the class of 2014 with the ball in his hands. Not a great shooter, but he is all about getting others involved and is an intense on the ball defender. He's physical, can push tempo and rates highly as a leader.
Distribution from the point is key, but with the departures of big time scorers in Harris and Payne, the Spartans will have to rely on Nairn, eventually, to score some points. That's a tall task, even for the best freshmen.
For the first time in this preview series, I have to say this: I really have no idea.
On the one hand, a world in which Michigan State is a bubble team is hard to imagine. On the other hand, losing players like Payne, Harris and a senior point guard in Appling (struggles notwithstanding) is no small matter.
Yes, Valentine has been a very solid secondary scorer--can he be a so called "first line" guy? Additionally, can Dawson stay healthy this time around? His injury was a non-basketball thing, so it's not like it's something that would lead to throwing around the term "injury-prone" or anything (whether you believe he actually broke his hand that way is another thing entirely).
The Spartans will likely still play defense and rebound, just like they always have. Offensively, however, a lack of starpower is concerning for the 2014-15 iteration of MSU basketball.
Regardless, if the Spartans finish in the top four, I'd have to consider this one of Izzo's best coaching jobs yet (which is saying something). Taking a team with multiple NBA talents to a league title and the Elite Eight is one thing, but doing something with a roster that doesn't seem to stack up with years past is another.