*This is part five of a six part series previewing each Big Ten team.
Part five, Friday: Michigan State, Michigan
Part six, Saturday: Ohio State, Indiana
4. Michigan State
The mastery of coach Tom Izzo was on full display once again in 2011-2012 for the Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten regular season title with a 29-8 overall record and a 13-5 Big Ten Record. Michigan State earned a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Led by First Team All-American Draymond Green and senior Brandon Wood, the Spartans added another Sweet Sixteen run to Izzo’s resume. Heading into this season, the Spartans will have to move on without Green and Wood, as well as senior leader Austin Thornton. It’s a position Izzo has been in before and he’s confident this team has the talent to compete despite their losses.
“I like the fact that we have depth, I think we have some youth, I think we have some guys that have been in a Final Four, won, so we have experience at the highest level,” Izzo said. “Some of these guys have won a couple of Big Ten Championships, and we need improvement out of guys, especially Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix, and maybe the best present is, it looks like Branden Dawson is healthy.”
Sophomore forward Branden Dawson was a highly-touted recruit when he came to East Lansing and he didn’t disappoint. Dawson averaged 8.4 ppg and 4.5 rpg shooting 57.7% from the field in only 20.6 minutes per game. His superior athleticism and energy on the defense end earned him minutes down the stretch up until his season was cut short by an ACL injury. The Spartans are expecting big things out of a healthy and matured Dawson for this upcoming season, as he should crack the starting lineup.
The lone senior on the Michigan State roster is center Derrick Nix. In his three years with the Spartans, Nix has never played major minutes, as he only played 18.9 mpg last season. With the wide-body Green graduating, Nix will play a major role on the glass and in clogging up the middle. He averaged a career-high 8.1 ppg last season, but at 6’9” 270 lbs, he’ll have to grab more than 3.8 rpg.
Michigan State isn’t short on size. Next to the behemoth Nix is 6’10” 240 lb junior Adreian Payne. Payne also averaged a career-high with 7 ppg and improved his free throw percentage by a remarkable 21.1%. His conditioning has been an issue in the past, but he’s slimmed down in preparation for putting in big minutes.
Junior guard Keith Appling emerges as a leader with only one senior on the roster. Appling averaged a career-high 11.4 ppg and 3.9 apg, but saw a major drop in his efficiency. His three point percentage fell 16.1% and his free throw percentage fell 9.8%. Appling made his jump shot his number one priority in the off-season.
“I watched a lot of film to help work on my decision making and I got in the gym and worked on my jump shot tremendously,” Appling said. “I felt like it was a huge drop off in my percentage from freshman to sophomore year, so that’s one of the things that I kind of kept in the back of my mind each and every day when I walked in the gym.”
Joining Appling in the backcourt this season is the 11th overall prospect in the 2013 class, shooting guard Gary Harris. Harris draws comparisons to former Michigan State great Jason Richardson. Izzo thinks Harris will immediately fit into the Spartans system.
“He’s been better than I thought he would be, shooting better than I thought he would, and he picks up things so fast,” Izzo said. “I tease his dad because his mother played in the WNBA and she was a very good player at Purdue, so he’s a chip off her block, I guess, but he’s just a great kid to coach. He’s a great student, he picks things up and he’s been shooting the ball better and better. Defensively I give his high school coach credit because he had it before he came here.”
The Spartan’s 14th national ranking is a testament to the coaching ability of Izzo. Izzo has a young, inexperienced roster at his arsenal. Most years this team would be good enough to win a Big Ten title, but in such a stacked conference, the odds are against them. The Spartan’s success is contingent on the development of their young players. Under Izzo, it’s a mistake to ever doubt the Spartans. Even with the key departures, the Spartans will compete for another Big Ten title.
While the Michigan Wolverines won a share of the Big Ten regular season title with a 24-10 overall record and a 13-5 Big Ten record, they ended last season on a sour note. The Wolverines entered the NCAA tournament as a 4 seed but didn’t last long. Michigan was upset by 13 seed Ohio in the 2nd round of the tournament. Led by young guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, many pointed to inexperience as a culprit. Coach John Beilein admits the team’s lack of experience is an obstacle.
“We love the young men we have,” Beilein said. “I think with just three returning starters, we have challenges because so few of our players have a lot of game experience. There are only three of them with significant game experience. So there are challenges there, but there is great opportunity because of the young talent we have and the returning players who haven’t played a lot but have worked hard at their game.”
Tim Hardaway Jr., now upperclassmen, is prepared to step up as the leader for the Wolverines. Michigan enters the season ranked as the 5th best team in the nation, putting even more attention on them than usual. Michigan has a rich history of basketball success and after years of rebuilding, has finally reached national status once again. Hardaway Jr. will continue to carry the same mindset even with the high expectations.
“I’m just gonna keep on playing the same way we play,” Hardaway Jr. said. “Take each day one step at a time. Not looking at the past, not looking at the future, just staying in the moment. And it’s big for this conference to have three teams in the top five, it speaks a lot about it. Just competing with the ACC, the Big East, and the Big 12, and all the power six conferences, it’s just an honor and a privilege to be ranked that high. And we’re just gonna take it as humble as possible.”
Hardaway Jr. was the second leading scorer for the Wolverines last season (14.6 ppg) and usually had the ball in his hands in crunch time. Hardaway Jr. didn’t make the strides some people expected him to make from his freshman to sophomore year. His shot betrayed him as his three point percentage fell from 36.7% to 28.3% and he made 23 less three pointers. He remains a major contributor for the Wolverines, but fans in Ann Arbor are waiting for him to breakout. With major hops and globs of potential, he’ll compete for First Team All-Big Ten honors this season.
Joining Hardaway Jr. in the backcourt is sophomore Trey Burke, who exploded onto the national scene after a stellar freshman campaign. Burke lead the Wolverines in scoring (14.8 ppg) and passing (4.6 apg), earning him pre-season First Team All-American honors. Burke is a pint-sized star (generously listed at 6’0”) and is super quick. His maturity and leadership was ahead of the curve as a freshman. His Chris Paul comparisons intrigued NBA scouts, which almost led to Burke leaving for the NBA draft. Coach Beilein is glad he didn’t.
“Having him back has been helpful because he’s a good player,” Beilein said. “He is a winner, he’s proved he’s a winner and having talent is one thing, teaching winning is another thing. He’s been through a year where he was so helpful in that Big Ten championship in games both at home and on the road.”
Michigan is also pleased to return junior forward Jordan Morgan, who lead the Wolverines in rebounding (5.6 rpg) last season. Morgan averaged 7.3 ppg shooting 61.9% from the field in only 24.4 minutes per game as the featured inside presence for the Wolverines. Morgan’s scoring fell 1.9 points from his freshman season. The Wolverines hope to see Morgan become more aggressive on the offense end and continue to evolve his game.
Michigan adds three ESPN top 100 recruits in small forward Glenn Robinson Jr. (18th), power forward Mitch McGary (27th) and small forward Nik Stauskas (76th). These talented young players will have immediate roles on the team with Michigan only returning two starters. One of those returning starters, Tim Hardaway Jr., is happy to welcome the freshman into the Michigan family.
“They have a lot of hype on them coming into college, they’ve done a great job of staying humble and wanting to learn,” Hardaway Jr. Said. “They have that wanted attitude and they just wanna do whatever they can to help the team out and just to have them on the team now is an honor that they picked to come to Michigan.”
The Michigan program is used to lofty expectations and this year will be no different. A top five ranking is generous for a team that didn’t even make it past their first NCAA tournament matchup last season. The ranking is based on the continued development of guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, as well as the impact of Michigan’s recruiting class. With talent comes expectations and anything less than an Elite Eight appearance will be a disappointment for the Wolverines.