Michigan State Basketball: What Each Projected Starter Brings to the Table

Brad Almquist@bquist13Featured ColumnistJune 25, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: What Each Projected Starter Brings to the Table

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    Led by a couple of returning starters and a cohort of complementary players, Michigan State will enter the 2014-15 season with a new identity.

    How Tom Izzo decides to concoct his starting lineup, however, isn't clear at the moment.

    Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson are guarantees to appear in the starting five. Both players are returning from career-best campaigns and will headline this Spartan attack.

    Travis Trice is certainly ready to increase his role within the team, as he has served as Sparty’s primary backup point guard for his three years in East Lansing. Late last season, his excellent tournament play resembled that of a starter.

    Aside from those three aforementioned pieces, the vast majority of the remaining players are unproven at the college level.

    A plethora of bench players from last season’s Elite Eight team will return, accompanied by a solid 2014 class. Collectively, they will fight for the remaining positions.

    This slideshow will project each starting position for the 2014-15 season and examine what the candidates vying for those spots bring to the table.

Point Guard: Travis Trice

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It’s safe to assume that Travis Trice will land the point guard spot. Although highly coveted newcomer Lourawls Nairn will compete, Trice will likely start at the beginning of the season.

    He has certainly waited his turn.

    The rising senior has been a key asset for Izzo’s Spartans throughout his career. As he has aged, Trice has progressively produced at a higher rate.

    The one threat he has constantly presented throughout his career is his dangerous three-point shooting. He has shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc in each of his three seasons.

    As a backup, he was the perfect complement to Keith Appling. Appling thrived on penetration and made plays in the lane, whereas Trice produces on the perimeter.

    Now, he and Nairn will form that duo.

    Last season, Trice matured into one of the best sixth men in the country. He actually outplayed Appling in some games and was rewarded with more minutes.

    He produced outstanding games in some important contests, including both games against Wisconsin, a win over Iowa and the opening contest in the NCAA tournament against Delaware. He provided double-digit scoring off the bench in all of those games.

    Trice progressed into one of the team’s more reliable players as well, taking care of the ball and running the offense with purpose.

    He is familiar with the system and has excelled in it. Now, it’s time for Trice to take the next step into a starting role while also diversifying his offensive arsenal.

    The greatest threat he poses will always be his outside touch. However, Trice must focus on penetrating and finishing inside in order to maximize his potential.

Shooting Guard: Alvin Ellis

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    Ellis only played eight minutes per game as a freshman, but he displayed some promise during his limited time on the court. One area where he impressed was three-point shooting.

    Although it is a small sample size, Ellis shot 46 percent on 13 shots from three-point territory last season. That percentage is more legitimate when looking back to his time as a high school player, when he shot around 40 percent from deep in his final two seasons.

    Additionally, the 6'4" guard proved that he is a capable defender. In the physically daunting Big Ten, Ellis was never a liability on either end of the floor.

    His best performance of the season came against archrival Michigan. Although MSU lost, it witnessed the growth of a freshman, as Ellis registered 11 points on 4-for-4 shooting from the field.

    He is the projected starter for 2014-15. Trice could potentially supplant Ellis at shooting guard if Nairn is just too valuable to keep off the court. While Trice isn’t a natural 2-guard, he shoots exceptionally well.

    The smaller approach also isn’t a poor one. Just ask UConn: Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, both standing at 6'1" or smaller, fueled its NCAA title run.

    That circumstance is possible, but not ideal.

    Moving forward, Ellis must improve his finishing around the rim and continue to get stronger in the offseason. It will be a momentous leap for the sophomore to start after seeing minimal playing time in his first year, but as of now, the shooting guard spot is his to lose.

Small Forward: Denzel Valentine

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    Valentine is the face of this returning group. Widely considered one of the best passers in the Big Ten, he presents numerous issues for the opposition at the 3-guard spot.

    As a freshman, he was much-maligned for his lack of three-point accuracy, something he greatly rectified as a sophomore. He increased his percentage from 28 to 37 and established consistency shooting the ball.

    A 6'5" guard who whips passes effortlessly, enters the lane and hits outside shots, he is entering a potentially career-defining season.

    Valentine helps this squad in a multitude of areas. He's a remarkably versatile talent, as he could probably play anywhere from the point guard to the power forward spot. For a team whose lineups and rotations aren't yet determined, that is a massive luxury.

    The Sexton High School (Michigan) product blossomed last season. Now, he will take the leap as the team's go-to-guy.

Power Forward: Branden Dawson

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    The top-notch athlete averaged 16 points and nearly nine rebounds per game in last season's NCAA tournament. Before that outburst, Branden Dawson was crowned the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player.

    Not a bad way to end the season.

    And he did so after returning from a broken hand, which only magnified his enigmatic 2013-14 campaign to that point. Now, the old Dawson appears to be a specimen of the past.

    Entering his senior year, the former 247Sports.com 5-star recruit is poised for a career-defining season.

    Although a solid portion of his former production came from dump-offs down low from Keith Appling and Gary Harris, who are both gone, Dawson displayed his newfound versatility in terms of his scoring throughout that scorching stretch.

    He hit some mid-range jumpers. He burst past nearby defenders and finished around the hoop. And as he always has, Dawson relentlessly ran the floor with purpose and finished emphatically around the rim.

    Much of his production stems from constant effort, but not enough is attributed to his raw scoring ability.

    Perhaps more importantly, he brings an unwavering will to rebound anything within grasp.

    Dawson led the team in boards as a junior. Despite his 6'6" frame, his jumping ability and fantastic hands morph him into a tremendous rebounder.

    Now, with Adreian Payne departed, Dawson will shoulder even more of the load.

    He, like Valentine, will be forced to excel in many areas for this Spartans team. The most important facets for him are rebounding, scoring and asserting himself as the team's outright leader.

Center: Matt Costello

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    By default, Costello slides into the fifth starting spot at center. However, it hasn't exactly been earned.

    For a brief stretch of the 2013-14 campaign, Costello actually resembled a true, physically imposing big man. Especially during the Iowa game, when he recorded 11 points and 12 boards, his resolve in the paint and prowess on the defensive end shone brightly.

    However, that was short-lived. His duties as starter were relinquished and he played sparingly for the rest of the season.

    With Payne just days away from entering the NBA, Costello must be working to earn his predecessor's spot. He won't replicate the versatile Payne's production, but Costello must return to how he performed during those sparse, well-played stretches.

    He will immediately provide size. Where he isn't given enough credit is his impact on the defensive endmore specifically, his shot-blocking.

    Costello averaged 1.3 blocks per game in only 15 minutes, an impressive statistic. With more minutes, he will prove his worth on the defensive end of the floor.

    The junior must improve as an offensive player too, as his shooting touch needs some fine-tuning. If he does so, Costello will emerge as a pivotal player for the Spartans.