Taking ownership, both individually and as a team, will be the key for Michigan State in 2014-15.
In order for the Spartans to thrive, they must come together and toe the company line for coach Tom Izzo, whose system will likely be the deciding factor this season—not the amount of pure talent at his disposal. He lost a lot of that when Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Gary Harris moved on to the next phase of their careers and lives.
Of course, Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice and Matt Costello will be important and assist in keeping the ship afloat; one of them will likely be the team’s MVP.
But who has the best chance? Will Izzo be led by another upperclassmen? Or will a point guard command the way to March? Or maybe it’ll be a do-all junior? The Spartans are months away from hitting the court, but it’s never too early to take a shot or two with a few educated guesses in the MVP game.
Experience goes a long way, and when that experience comes from the point man, great things usually happen for the Spartans, who have been known for steady four-year generals since the days of coach Jud Heathcote.
Eric Snow, Magic Johnson, Scott Skiles, Mateen Cleaves, Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas have all carried the load, and now it’s time for the next guy in line to do something.
Now, there’s no need to take two or adjust your lens because, yes, Travis Trice is—as crazy as it may sound—going to be thrown into that category for two reasons: He’s a senior, and he’s the likely starting point guard.
For obvious reasons, comparing Trice to the aforementioned needs a qualifier: Athletically, he’s not at the same level as the past guys—but he’s more than made up for that with effort and dedication. On top of that, he’s a great example of what a student-athlete should be. He’s never mentioned for the wrong reasons, his intentions are never in question and he’s never been the source of a problem.
He’s pretty much been the ideal teammate.
At 6’0” (sure he is) and 170 pounds, Izzo’s Charlie Hustle could absolutely be the Spartans’ most valuable asset this year—and he could do that by simply playing his trademark defense and taking care of the ball. As a junior, he posted career-high averages of 2.3 assists and nearly a steal per game; he’s also cut turnovers by nearly 20 percent since his freshman year.
He gets better each season (when healthy).
He probably won’t pull a Cleaves or a Neitzel, or a Lucas or a Snow, but he’ll pull a Trice—and that’s all Izzo can ask for. The Spartans should take comfort in knowing that the ball will be in the hands of a mature, hard-working, program-first player.
There’s a lot of value in Trice. Michigan State will find that out next year—without him. But it’ll probably get his best in 2014-15.
Dawson is 6’6” and 225 pounds of dunk. However, he needs to add some shooting to that equation. Repeating the same thing as last year, “Dawson will be a complete, MVP-type if he can develop a jumper.”
According to the buzz last summer, he did that. But according to his performance as a junior, he didn’t.
Easily one of the game’s most athletic, Dawson can be a 15-and-10 guy by showing up on game day. When kicked into gear, he can score whenever he chooses. Four years ago, Dawson was supposed to be a two-and-done. He once thought about transferring but stuck around to learn from Izzo and develop his game to NBA standards.
He’s playing for his career this season. Finishing strong should boost his draft stock, and it’ll also help when evaluating his legacy in East Lansing. He’s a potential Big Ten Player of the Year candidate—that much is clear. Properly motivated, however, he could rise to national levels of attention.
Denzel Valentine’s overall awareness and skill set have been compared to that of Draymond Green, the Spartans’ former multitasker who set the bar for multitaskers in the Izzo era. At 6’5” and about 225 pounds, Valentine does nearly everything well.
He’s a great passer and plays above-average defense. He has exceptional range and the ability to score in spurts. If not for his lukewarm 67 percent career average from the line and incredibly on-and-off three-point shooting, he’d be a steady star.
Up until now, he’s been an occasional star. Due to the fact that he can play and score from three positions—four if he’s stretching it—he’s set to have a breakout season and set the tone for a storied senior romp in 2015-16.
Matt Costello could emerge as a go-to for Izzo. The 6’9”, 240-pound forward has the physical tools to dominate the competition. However, he’s been incredibly streaky and needs to settle in before becoming a top-tier team MVP candidate.
If he clears waivers, Bryn Forbes could help change the complexion of the offense. The 6'3," 175-pound shooting prodigy would give the Spartans another multi-tooled scoring option. He can shoot from anywhere, drive, hit free throws and pass. But his status is up in the air.
Tum-Tum Nairn, the next-gen kid in town, could surprise a few people as well. The 5’10”, 165-pounder is, in fact, an Izzo point guard, which is a great thing for the program. He could pull a Cleaves or Neitzel by helping lead Michigan State to the Final Four—in 2015-16, though. As for this year, look for him to get comfortable with the collegiate pace and learn from Trice.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81