With KJ’s retirement, Tim Conner is taking over the reigns as the chief representative of The Only Colors to participate in this year’s Around the Big Ten season preview feature. Conner agreed to answer questions about last year as well as what will make this year different. (Previously: Penn State, Minnesota, Ohio State)
It’s tough to define last year as anything but a disappointment for Michigan State fans. With Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers gone, what are expectations like for the coming season?
It was not a fun year to be a Spartan fan. The team had one of the worst offenses of the Tom Izzo era and seemed gripped by turmoil and frustration throughout the season. Izzo himself was suspended a game for a secondary NCAA rules violation, guards Chris Allen and Korie Lucious were dismissed from the team, and a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament seemed a predictable end to a long and trying season. Still, they did end up with 19 wins and managed to make the Tournament for the 14th straight year.
This year I would say there’s an attitude of cautious optimism about the Spartans. Aside from Ohio State at the top things seem pretty wide-open in the Big Ten. The departures of Lucious, Garrick Sherman and now Delvon Roe make this a younger team, one that will feature the arrival of six players most fans have never seen before. It’s always tempting to be a little optimistic about the prospects of newcomers. Improvement is also expected from last year’s freshmen and with Draymond Green being picked on many pre-season All-Big Ten teams there may be some reasons for hope this year.
Fifth-year transfer Brandon Wood opted to attend Michigan State after leaving Valparaiso, what sort of role do you expect him to play during the upcoming season?
I think he’ll start and play a lot. He should bring experience and some scoring punch that was missing last year. I see him getting most of his minutes at the two-guard and being a primary option on offense – if he has to be drafted into running the offense then something has probably gone wrong with the anticipated Keith Appling/Travis Trice point guard rotation. The main question with Wood is how well he will fit into Izzo’s system. Initial reports have been positive.
Keith Appling and Adreian Payne were both highly regarded prospects coming out of high school and saw their fair share of ups and downs as freshmen. Appling was an effective defender and three point shooter but not a major component of the offense while Payne showed off his athleticism for limited stretches. How will each player’s role expand this season?
With Kalin Lucas moving on to play in Greece, Appling will be expected to be the primary point guard. But he’s not a natural point guard, as Izzo himself has stated, and he’ll be getting a lot of help from freshman Travis Trice and some from Wood as well. He’s definitely expected to step up as a scorer, making it likely he’ll see a significant increase in his low 15% usage rate. Last year’s team struggled to make shots and two of its top three scorers are gone now, so Appling will also be expected to create shots for himself, something many fans expected from him last year but didn’t see a lot of. I think that how the season goes for Appling will be a pretty good barometer of how the team as a whole is doing.
Payne was a highly-ranked but not quite Jared Sullinger-level prospect. Big men like that tend to take some time to find their roles and develop their skills. Time was one thing Payne didn’t get much of last year as he averaged only 9 minutes a game, which may have limited his development. He has fantastic athleticism for his size but visibly struggled last season to master Izzo’s demanding offensive and defensive schemes. If he can improve in that area he will be able to stay on the court longer and have more of an impact. I expect him to get some starts and be a part of the primary rotation. He’ll be battling the once again newly slim Derrick Nix for playing time.
I’ve seen Branden Dawson play and think he’s an absolutely terrific fit for Tom Izzo’s system. Could Dawson start as a freshman? What are the expectations around the program?
Tom Izzo has been willing to give starts to freshmen and Branden Dawson may be one of those guys. For one thing he’ll benefit from Roe’s departure. For another, he’s just a really, really impressive player and, as you say, a great fit for an Izzo team. He can provide offense without needing to dominate the ball or have plays run for him. As he showed in the McDonald’s All-America game, he can get points just by having a nose for the ball and going after it on the glass. He still has to improve his shot and show that he can defend on the perimeter but there’s a lot of excitement around East Lansing about Dawson’s potential.
Draymond Green transitioned into a more perimeter focused role last season but had his fair share of struggles. Where does he fit on this team and how does that affect his development?
This is now Draymond Green’s team, something both he and Tom Izzo acknowledge. It will be interesting to see how he responds to that challenge. When he struggled last year, it seemed to be a result of trying to do too much. He took on a larger role in the offense, leading the team in assist rate and even taking 101 three point shots, but this was at the expense of his core skill, two-point shooting, which fell off a full ten percent from his sophomore year (55% to 45%). If Appling, Wood and others can take some of the scoring – and playmaking – burden off him, he could have the all-conference type of season many are predicting for him. But if he feels he has to put the team on his back again he could have struggles similar to last year.
How much does Delvon Roe’s decision to hang up his sneakers hurt Michigan State’s chances in the upcoming season? Who do you expect to step up in the front court?
I was as surprised as anyone when Ken Pomeroy tweeted that the loss of Roe dropped Michigan State from 16th to 24th in his preseason rankings. Not just that they were ranked that high to begin with but that Roe would make that much difference. But he is right, I think, that it hurts more than conventional statistics would suggest. Roe’s offensive role shrank almost to the vanishing point last year but he was still effective in the possessions he did use. He was the team’s best two-point shooter and he got to the line a ton. But he’ll be missed most on the other end of the court, where he turned himself into a very effective defensive player, often being matched against the opposition’s best player.
I think there’s is a tendency, especially in basketball, to overvalue the contributions of a single player. If Purdue could have the season they did with no Robbie Hummel and an unheralded bench then I think Michigan State can overcome the loss of Roe. In fact, I think it may open the door for Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne to get the minutes and experience they will need to make a difference in the frontcourt.
Gone, for now, are the days when MSU would expect to sweep this season series. The politically correct response would be to say that competitive games make for a better rivalry. But I’ll freely admit that I want the Spartans to win every game against the Wolverines – by a lot. A few years ago it had really reached the point where most MSU fans considered Wisconsin their main rival. But last season’s results definitely heated things up in-state. If Lucas and Darius Morris were still here it would be even more interesting. As it is I think MSU will still hold serve at the Breslin Center and I’ll go with a home-and-home split this year.
What’s one Michigan State player that will surprise this year that no one is talking about?
That’s a tough one, as there seems to be a lot of discussion about everyone. I wanted to go with Russell Byrd here, but after a lost season and two foot operations he’s still not practicing every day. I’ll pick Travis Trice, who, as the only point guard on the roster should get significant playing time and could be an effective scoring threat from the perimeter.
Breakdown the highlights of Michigan State’s non-conference schedule.
Well, it’s hard to match the opening game against North Carolina, the consensus number one team, on an aircraft carrier with President Obama In attendance. But they add to that games against Duke in Madison Square Garden, Florida State at home and Gonzaga on the road. It doesn’t get much more brutal than that. An under-the-radar game I’m looking forward to is Central Connecticut, which features Ken Horton, whom Luke Winn calls “the best player you’ve never heard of.”
Michigan State projected conference record? 10-8. Two games each with Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin and only one with Penn State make for a tough road.
Will Michigan State win its ACC/Big Ten Challenge Game? Yes, but it should be close. The game finally returns to the Breslin Center and MSU matches up fairly well with Florida State. Turnovers, at both ends, will be the key.
Most feared player (in the Big Ten)? Jordan Taylor. Sullinger is terrifying but still needs someone to get him the ball. Taylor can simply dominate a game.
Surprise player (in the Big Ten)? Meyers Leonard. The departures of Tisdale and Davis and a strong performance on Team USA this summer set things up well for a breakout year for Leonard.
Conference Champs? Ohio State. Nothing interesting to add here.
Surprise team? Iowa. A lot of possibilities here, including Indiana. Iowa may not be ready to contend for a title yet but they’re very talented, bring back everyone but Jarryd Cole, and should improve on last year’s 4-14.