Ranked second in the preseason polls a year ago, the Michigan State Spartans finished with an incredibly disappointing season. Expectations are much lower in 2011-2012 as the Spartans lose three starters, but never count out Tom Izzo's ability to make magic happen.
The one constant for Michigan State this season is the versatile Draymond Green. Though undersized at 6-6, he is a factor inside due to his strength and toughness. Green is also dangerous on the perimeter where he has improved the consistency of his jumper and actually led the team in assists last year. He will also be the emotional leader of the team.
The Spartans took a hit to their frontcourt when Delvon Roe was forced to retire from basketball due to chronic knee problems. His absence should pave for the way for McDonald's All-American Branden Dawson to immediately step into the starting lineup. He has a great combination of strength and athleticism and will be an interesting compliment to Green in the frontcourt. Redshirt freshman Alex Gauna and senior Austin Thornton will likely be used as role players off the bench.
Despite the transfer of Garrick Sherman, Michigan State has quality size in the middle. Derrick Nix worked on cutting weight and getting in better shape this summer as conditioning factored into his struggles last season. He will still need to throw his big body around inside, and Izzo is counting on him to become a more consistent contributor. Nix will battle for minutes in the middle with sophomore Adriean Payne who showed flashes as a freshman and should benefit from a year of experience.
The backcourt must replace both starters. Keith Appling took advantage of Korie Lucious transferring during the season as he received a major boost in minutes. Appling is capable of playing either guard position as is his likely backcourt mate, Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood. Wood becomes immediately eligible since he graduated from Valparaiso and enrolled at Michigan State as a graduate student. His addition gives the Spartans a veteran presence in a very young backcourt. He's someone who is capable of scoring double digits every night if he can make the transition to playing better competition on a game-in, game-out basis.
The depth at guard has zero college basketball experience. Russell Byrd redshirted last season due to a foot injury but is a long wing who can flat out shoot it from deep. Freshman Travis Trice is another gunner from distance who will see limited time at the point while athletic two guard Brandon Kearney also tries to work his way into the rotation.
Mr. Basketball in Michigan, Dwaun Anderson was supposed to add more depth at guard but chose not to enroll in school because he wanted to get some personal issues in order after the death of his mother this past spring.
Their streak of 14 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament will continue this season. As we have learned with Izzo's Spartans, anytime they get to the dance, Michigan State is capable of making a run regardless of their regular season record or seed. For that to happen this year, the Wood-Appling backcourt must find their sync and get solid play from Dawson, Nix, and Payne inside. With so many new faces though, I can't put the Spartans any higher than this in my rankings; even with their recent history of success.
Player to Watch: Keith Appling, G
Wood's arrival takes some of the pressure off Appling in terms of becoming the primary ball handler and backcourt leader. He is the team's top three point shooter but is also capable of using his athleticism to get to the basket. He probably has to at least double his scoring average (6.4) from last year if the Spartans are to make some real noise in the Big Ten and around the country.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/11 vs. North Carolina (on a friggen aircraft carrier)