Michigan State Basketball: Projected Starting 5 and Players' Roles

Brad Almquist@bquist13Featured ColumnistApril 16, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: Projected Starting 5 and Players' Roles

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    Michigan State will enter its 2014-15 season without its three leading scorers and its best assist man. Now without Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, the faces of the program in recent years, Tom Izzo must search for new answers.

    On a positive note, Izzo returns two starters and several experienced complementary players. For Sparty to record another successful season, those guys will need to step into the spotlight and deliver.

    Additionally, the 2014 recruiting class is one that will help. Lourawls Nairn headlines it, and he should see the bulk of playing time out of the class.

    Moving forward, it's time to look ahead to next season's starting lineup and analyze how each of those five players must contribute.

Point Guard: Travis Trice

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    Trice played the best ball of his career in the midst of Keith Appling's injury. That scenario forced Trice to step into more of a primary role, both when Appling was sidelined and when he returned.

    Clearly, Appling wasn't himself. But the quality of play at the point guard position remained supreme in large part due to Trice's performances.

    It started in the Iowa game in East Lansing, when he actually played more minutes than Appling, despite not starting the game. Trice played 26 minutes and poured in 17 points. That game ignited his confidence, which was evidenced in his subsequent numbers.

    In a six-game span beginning with that performance, Trice averaged over 11 points per game on 52.5 percent shooting from the floor. He went on a four-game stretch with only one turnover as well.

    That's the type of production that Trice must produce on a more consistent basis in order to fill the point guard void. Last season was an inconsistent one for the junior, but he did provide that stellar stretch of games that can certainly excite Spartans fans.

    By the end of the season, Trice and Appling nearly split minutes. While his name wasn't listed under the "starters" section, Trice began to play like one, which should serve the soon-to-be senior well in his final season.

    He will be relied on to score more consistently, along with Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine. Trice scores the majority of his points from the perimeter, shown by the fact that nearly 59 percent of his shot attempts came from behind the arc.

    He has the craftiness to enter the lane and find teammates. But Trice needs to assert himself as more than strictly a three-point shooter. With more of the responsibilities handed to him, look for him to do so.

Shooting Guard: Alvin Ellis III

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    Ellis has the potential to become a versatile shooting guard in the Big Ten. At 6'4" and 195 pounds, he has the physical tools that could present mismatch problems for opposing defenses.

    As a freshman, Ellis just seemed a little too inexperienced to play under the bright lights. He could clearly play at the necessary pace to remain a viable threat, but he just didn't make the impact that some could have expected an athlete to make.

    Granted, he had Gary Harris occupying the majority of the shooting guard minutes. Additionally, Denzel Valentine blossomed nicely into a ubiquitous small forward, asserting himself as the fifth starter.

    But this upcoming season, Ellis will likely move into Harris' former position as the starter. Again, the rising sophomore has the physical capabilities. He drives to the hoop with ease, guards well and possesses above-average strength for a shooting guard.

    He also knocks down open shots. Where he can stand to improve, however, is his assertiveness. Ellis can potentially become a versatile offensive option, with the potential to average right around eight-to-10 points per game in the 2014-15 season.

    He must continue working on his jump shot. Additionally, he will need to improve his decision-making. With continuous repetition in the offseason and a keen understanding of his role, Ellis could morph into a solid starter for the Spartans next year.

Small Forward: Denzel Valentine

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    As a raw, talented product coming out of high school, Valentine developed into one of the most well-rounded guards in the conference. Valentine scored eight points per game, complemented by an astounding six rebounds with nearly four assists.

    Valentine finished second in the Big Ten in rebounds per game for guards, averaging 8.2 per 40 minutes. He admirably stepped up when forwards Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson were sidelined by making a concerted effort to crash the glass.

    If there are any concerns about Valentine, they are his streaky shooting and a tendency to force the issue at times.

    Last season, the 6'5" sophomore shot only 40.8 percent from the floor, along with a solid 37.7 percent from three-point land. The latter statistic is encouraging, as he improved his outside shot by nearly ten percentage points from his freshman year. However, he must improve the former number come next season.

    Additionally, he tends to occasionally force the issue. Valentine is widely regarded as one of the premier passers in the Big Ten, which he showcases with crafty, no-look dishes around the hoop. But often he becomes too ambitious and sometimes careless.

    Those weaknesses are small fixes. If Valentine improves his decision-making and continues to work on his shot, he could become an All-Big Ten performer as a junior. There aren't many glaring weaknesses in his repertoire, and an enhanced role could potentially do wonders for the talented rising junior.

Power Forward: Branden Dawson

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    Branden Dawson's decision to remain at school for his senior season certainly aided the Spartans in multiple regards. Named the Big Ten tournament Most Outstanding Player, Dawson provided a glimpse late last season of what he could potentially manifest next season.

    He was nearly unstoppable. Dawson recovered from his broken hand with six straight dominant performances. He averaged 17.5 points per game through that span with over eight rebounds per contest.

    Those eruptive offensive outputs were fueled by his endless tenacity and activity around the hoop. Dawson ran the floor hard, attacked the glass and finished everything. That type of play was always shown in flashes by Dawson, but the final stretch of the season showed he could do so on a consistent basis.

    Now, heading into 2014-15, he will be the focal point. Much of his production came from the help of his teammates, as he camped on the baseline or ran the floor hard and was rewarded with dunks. But he will need to develop a consistent jump shot in order to become unguardable.

    He has all of the athleticism in the world. If he applies it, Dawson could fuel the Spartans into the Big Ten race.

Center: Matt Costello

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    Costello's 2013-14 season was highlighted by his 11-point, 12-rebound performance in a big win at Iowa. He played with energy and was active the entire game.

    But for some reason, he couldn't sustain that similar energy for the remainder of the season. Costello fluctuated in and out of the lineup, as Tom Izzo desperately searched for someone to permanently fill the 5-slot.

    Entering his junior season, Costello will need to assert himself as more of a threat offensively. He finishes adequately around the hoop but has difficulty creating his own shot or hitting jumpers.

    His role will be enhanced though still somewhat confined to playing big and finishing around the hoop. He must do so at a more consistent pace, however. Costello clearly has more experience than Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling, but he must progress if he wants to secure the starting spot.