Michigan State Basketball: 5 Biggest Things to Look Forward to in 2014-15
Michigan State will enter the 2014-15 season with new faces and a fresh commencement. Despite losing multiple, if not several, integral players, the Spartans have plenty to look forward to.
However, at the moment, much of that anticipation lies directly on Gary Harris and Branden Dawson's shoulders. Those two players are the most experienced and talented returning contributors for the Spartans, and they have not stated outright whether they will declare for the NBA draft.
So, there is some uncertainty.
Tom Izzo hasn't been to the Final Four in five years, the longest of his Michigan State tenure, which he will look to change immediately.
These are the five biggest things to look forward to in 2014-15.
Will Gary Harris and Branden Dawson Return?
This lone question has Spartans fans nervous and uneasy, as Harris and Dawson make this team a Big Ten contender. Without them, Michigan State is unlikely to top the reloaded Michigan Wolverines and Wisconsin Badgers.
Harris is a guaranteed first-round pick in the NBA draft, if he were to enter. The 6'4" shooting guard's offensive repertoire is as complete as any 2-guard in the country. He hits perimeter shots, has a solid mid-range game, has fantastic touch and can explode around the rim.
From an offensive standpoint, Harris will anchor the Spartans upon his return. The team's leading scorer will help aid the departures of Adreian Payne and Keith Appling.
From a defensive and rebounding perspective, Dawson is someone that Michigan State desperately needs to return. Without Payne occupying the paint, Dawson, at only 6'6", will be the lone key frontcourt player back.
He led the team with 8.3 rebounds per game. His defensive tenacity and ability to guard a plethora of positions make him a rarity.
In addition to his scrappy defense and explosive rebounding, he bolstered Sparty's late-season run with dominant offensive performances. He was named the Big Ten tournament's most outstanding player and continued that play with 24- and 26-point consecutive scoring efforts in the Big Dance.
Harris and Dawson were perhaps State's most versatile players in 2013-14. They played equally as hard on both sides of the court.
They will determine the fate of Sparty's upcoming season.
What Will Nairn's Impact Be?
Lourawls Nairn is the 73rd-ranked recruit by ESPN's recruiting experts, and he is one of the most exciting players in the class.
He kills defenses with his lightning-quick speed in transition. A true point guard, he runs the offense with purpose and is unselfish.
Doesn't he sound a little like Keith Appling?
With Appling graduating soon, Nairn will be vying for the starting point guard slot with soon-to-be senior Travis Trice. Trice played outstanding basketball late in the season, highlighted by his 19-point effort against Delaware in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
It would seem reasonable to expect Trice to start. However, Nairn possesses a completely different skill set, which could potentially complement Trice's. Trice runs the offense in the half court and scores many of his buckets through perimeter shooting.
Nairn wins with quickness and athleticism, but how quickly will he adapt to the college level? He has the tangibles, but it remains to be seen whether he will develop into a well-groomed point guard as a freshman.
He is sure to have some sort of impact on the upcoming campaign. But just how big will that be?
Valentine's Junior Year
Denzel Valentine made a leap from contributor as a freshman to a game-changing starter as a sophomore. He is arguably the best passer in the Big Ten, which, at 6'5", is uncommon.
He needs to develop more of a consistent perimeter shot. That started coming to fruition in the latter stages of the season, however, as he shot 50 percent from three-point land in his final four contests.
In addition to a versatile offensive game, he is an incredible rebounder for a guard. He also defends well by utilizing his length and quickness.
Much of Valentine's role will depend on whether Gary Harris and Branden Dawson return. If they don't, Valentine immediately becomes the primary offensive player on a team that potentially loses four players from its Elite Eight team.
It appears he is ready for the next step. His productive 2013-14 season was a pleasant surprise for Tom Izzo and the Spartans. Now, it's time for Valentine to vault into the upper echelon of Big Ten guards.
Puerto Rico Tip-off
The Puerto Rico Tip-Off will be Michigan State's early-season tournament of choice, and the field of teams is exciting: defending national champion Connecticut, Dayton (recently reached the Elite Eight), New Mexico and West Virginia.
That's a serious prelude to Big Ten basketball.
The Spartans will have the opportunity to evaluate themselves against some of the top programs in the country. The field will be competitive, as three of the eight teams made it to the Elite Eight in this year's NCAA tournament.
This will serve as a measuring stick for the new-look Spartans. A solid string of games against some elite squads will serve them well in future big-time games.
Will This Be One of Izzo's Best Coaching Jobs?
This question can be asked any given season, and for an esteemed coach like Tom Izzo, it's reasonable to expect that he might improve. With this upcoming team, however, he has the opportunity to display his brilliance on the sidelines.
That's because this team lacks the talent that has been omnipresent in recent seasons.
Adreian Payne and Keith Appling served as two of Izzo's more reliable players for the past three seasons. Both, when playing their best ball, were All-American-caliber.
Now, without them and possibly Branden Dawson and Gary Harris, Izzo will focus his attention on maximizing the talent out of the remaining players. Many of them are complementary guys, while others played key roles in State's Elite Eight run.
Izzo will have to prepare them for larger, more responsible roles in the upcoming season. That includes developing Lourawls Nairn into a college-ready point guard. Izzo has experience doing that, as he shaped Mateen Cleaves and recently Appling into polished floor generals.
The number of questions revolving around Sparty is far greater this season. Izzo is a savant at making his teams formidable, regardless of the situation.