It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Sunday: the Michigan State Spartans
It should no longer be surprising when Tom Izzo’s teams do what they do come March no matter how bleak things look at times during the rest of the season. Yet it seems like every time the Spartans come alive in the NCAA tournament we look up and marvel. Their recent run to the Final Four before losing in the national semifinals to eventual champion Duke even made a believer out of Izzo. Or at least he said he was “reinvigorated” by watching how simple hard work led to good things for Michigan State.
The good things seemed to continue when Caleb Swanigan made a verbal commitment to Michigan State last month. If anyone had the look of a prototype Izzo big man, it was Swanigan, who, at 6-foot-8, is an undersized center. But he was ranked No. 9 in the class of 2015 by Recruiting Nation because his motor is high and he maintains a physical presence in the post not to mention he’s a solid defender and rebounder. Swanigan’s commitment boosted the Spartans recruiting class to No. 4 — until he made a U-turn this week and backed out of his commitment. Even with Swanigan’s decision, Michigan State’s class is still ranked 16th.
Izzo’s teams have been at their best when the upperclass leadership has been the strongest. That’s how guard Travis Trice and forward Branden Dawson helped the Spartans navigate the NCAA tournament, springing upsets as a No. 7 seed over the No. 2 seed Virginia Cavaliers, No. 3 seed Oklahoma Sooners and No. 4 seed Louisville Cardinals en route to Indianapolis. Michigan State should again be in good hands with senior Denzel Valentine, who is its top returning scorer and rebounder, expected to step forward and assume a bigger leadership role.
The Spartans will get an early start on things with a trip to Italy Aug. 21 through Sept. 1 to play four games against international competition including senior national teams from Italy, Russia and Georgia. It will provide a good time to get the newcomers acclimated with the returnees, and even a returnee who will feel like a newcomer. Sophomore forward Javon Bess played just 12 games last season before being shut down by a foot injury. He was a potential starter last season as a freshman and after an offseason enabled his foot to heal, Bess could be poised to become a key player.
What the immediate future holds: Even though Eron Harris has never played in the green and white, he’ll immediately be an integral part of the lineup. Harris sat out last season after transferring from West Virginia, where he averaged 17.2 points as a sophomore. Harris often lit up practice sessions last season and should help ease the burden of making up for Trice’s absence. He’s adept at creating his own shot and can create for others off the dribble. Harris and Valentine will form one of the better backcourts in the Big Ten, if not nation.
Izzo will have plenty of experience to work with too. Eight players returning started at least one game and now they have the added benefit of knowing what it takes to be successful in the postseason. Guard Bryn Forbes could expand his role of being just a 3-point shooter. Sophomore point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., needs to become a better shooter, but took big steps toward developing into the floor leader Izzo wanted in the last part of the season. Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello have the bulk and size to keep the Spartans’ frontcourt formidable defensively.
Deyonta Davis, a 6-foot-9 freshman, is an athletic power forward who can score facing the basket or posting up. Davis was ranked No. 22 in the class of 2015 and could make up for the loss of Dawson. They’re different players, but Davis has length and a bounce that will energize the Spartans’ lineup. Without Swanigan, Davis will most likely be the freshman who makes the biggest impact for the Spartans.
Michigan State and Izzo are equipped to compete with Maryland, Indiana and the like atop the Big Ten standings next season. And if for some reason the Spartans stumble during the regular season, their 2015 Final Four appearance should give us all reason not to doubt that Izzo will find a way to rectify their ills come tournament time.