1. I think Denzel Valentine is going to be Big Ten POY – This will require MSU to have a big year as a team, because Denzel is unlikely to lead the league in any one statistical category. I think they’re primed to do that and I think Denzel will get the individual recognition as the best overall player in the conference. The league is loaded with high quality talent…no doubt about that. However, I don’t think there’s anyone who impacts the game more completely than #45 does for his team. His play over the summer for both MSU and the US Pan Am Games team convinced me that this is a guy peaking, continuing his improvement to the point that he’s ready to be annointed among the best at this level of the sport.
2. I think this will prove to be a really good shooting team, but not quite Izzo’s best ever. The best overall shooting group of his career was, not surprisingly, the 04-05 team which shot 48.7% from the floor…yet it’s not by a huge margin, as he’s had several teams top the 47% mark. I think this team can get into that range, but when you are talking about as jump shot dominant a group as this one is likely to be, it’s *really* tough to figure on their eclipsing 48.7%. If Schilling and/or Costello were to emerge as consistent low post threats, the odds would improve. Last year’s team shot 46.5%…I expect this one to be a little better than that.
3. I think this team will be improved in rebounding, as measured by margin and overall. I said MSU would be better in this area last year than in 13-14 and they were…barely, by 0.4 per game in margin. This year, I’d expect MSU to eclipse the 6 per game mark in terms of differential and maybe even get up toward 7. Why, especially when they’ve lost their best rebounder in BJ Dawson? It’ll be a combination of more size overall and improvement from some returning players. Eron Harris should provide more than Trice did in that area. Rebounding is one of the best things Javon Bess does. I was really impressed with the improvement Gav showed in Italy…he was quicker and more purposeful toward the ball coming off the rim than at any time I’ve seen him previously. As Deyonta Davis earns more time, his ability to control the glass will impact games as well. They won’t have any one guy at BJ’s level but as a team, they should be better.
4. I think MSU is going to get very good play out of the post/center/5 position. Gavin Schilling showed very, very well in Italy against big and experienced opposition. Will he be putting up 17 and 10 every night? No, I don’t see that…but I did see a guy who seemed to have the light switch on for him in a subtle but important way. IMO, the best indicator of a big man “getting it” is how quickly and fluidly they move. That doesn’t mean they have to be the athlete Gavin is but it does mean that you know you’re seeing a guy who feels confident in his game when you see fluidity and decisiveness in post moves, or in terms of getting to the ball coming off the glass. I saw signs of that from Gavin and I expect that we’ll see more of it this season. I expect less dramatic improvement from Matt Costello but I think we’ll see good play from him as well, as his experience and his skill set allow him to be a consistent contributor as well. I don’t think these guys will make anyone forget Wilt or Shaq, but to me this is very clearly no longer any sort of question mark or “weakness” on this roster. These guys played well last year and I think they’re set to be better again this season.
5. I think Bryn Forbes will be the best 6th Man in the Big Ten and perhaps America. I don’t think he’ll start because Eron Harris gives MSU a major scoring talent opposite Denzel and Tum is going to run this team from the point, but Izzo loves to have a guy with Bryn’s capabilities coming off his bench. It’s funny…he shot 43% from deep last season and I think most MSU fans feel as if he’s got even more in him…and I do as well. It won’t surprised me to see him at 45-50% from deep this season…somewhere in that range. His added strength and experience are going to make him easier to play without feeling as if you’re trading baskets as well…he should be better defensively and maybe better at forcing people to respect his game inside the arc a bit more. I think there are going to be lots of stretches where MSU has a three man perimeter group of Valentine, Harris, and Forbes (or sub McQuaid in for one of DV or Eron) and that might be as difficult a group to guard on the arc as you’ll find in college basketball.
6. I think the most critical area for MSU to “solve” is the 4. Expectations were high for Marvin Clark but his foot injury has put his play into the question mark area…how quickly can he get back to 100% and where is his game when that does happen? Right now, I think Deyonta Davis probably isn’t quite ready to play a major (say 20 mpg plus) role at that position. So, for the early going at least, I think you see MSU address it with some combination of Javon Bess and Gavin Schilling. Bess is the best bet if he’s gotten his confidence back. He is physically tough and is athletically built to hang with stretch/perimeter 4s. MSU would likely rather not play Gav there much but in the early going before Marv is back, he’s a better option IMO than is Davis just because of his experience, and he has the footwork necessary to hang with more athletic guys. Kenny Goins is also a possibility, as is Colby Wollenman, but long term (by Big Ten time), I think a combination of Clark, Bess and Davis could make that position solid…but that’ll have to happen for MSU to reach its potential. Too many capable scorers at that spot in the Big Ten for MSU to be suspect defensively there and not pay a price.
7. I think MSU will be better at the free throw line than they were last season. Now, it doesn’t take much to do that, given that they’re coming from a 63% level, easily the worst of Tom Izzo’s tenure. I think this group will get back to a more normal 70ish% range. Valentine, Forbes and Harris are all guys who should be 80% plus. That’s a good start, but improvement from guys like Costello and Clark, who were mid-high 60s guys last year, into the 70% plus range would help. Getting Tum from the mid 50s into the mid-high 60s would be good. I think Schilling will be better as well, though I hesitate to predict a number. Hidden improvement could really come simply by swapping Harris for Trice. Trav shot by far the most FT of any Spartan last season…165 attempts…and he was only at 71% on the season. I think Harris will take a lot this season and he’ll likely be an 80% plus guy, so that alone should help the bottom line improve.
8. I think we will continue to see what we saw from MSU when they were at their best offensively last season, and that’s playing “fast.” That doesn’t just mean transition play, though that’s certainly part of it, but rather that MSU doesn’t look to grind shot clocks down regularly. This team has so many good jump shooters that I think you want them taking good looks no matter when they present themselves, and when this team was at its offensive peak, they were moving the ball quickly and with purpose and taking open shots whenever they were there. There’s a misnomer that “good” shots are only those you took 30 seconds to find. It’s not about that, but rather judgment and execution. This is a team with some smart basketball players, despite some fans’ inability to understand what that really means and how it manifests. I trust them but far, far more importantly, I think their coach trusts them.
9. I think by the beginning of February, Deyonta Davis is going to be a two way force for MSU. That doesn’t mean he’ll be putting up 20 and 10 but I expect by then he’ll be confident enough to earn large regular minutes and will be making an impact offensively and defensively. He has a chance to change the way opponents play due to his ability to block shots. Now, he has to be able to stay on the floor in order to do that, but I think the first 2.5 months will get him where he needsto be. On offense, his size and athleticism will enable him to contribute some points as a garbage man and rim runner, but I think you’ll also see MSU use him a bit in the pick and pop game…probably not for 3s but in the midrange the way Matt Costello operated at times last season.
10. I think MSU will enter March as a legitimate Final Four and national title threat. I have them winning the league due in part to scheduling advantages over the other contenders, but make no mistake, MSU would be a worthy champ regardless. More importantly, I like the odds of this team, if healthy, being in a position by March to hang with anybody. They won’t have the most talent of anyone in the country but the gap between them and the top end in that category should be far smaller than it was last season. There is no 2015 UK or Duke this year. Instead, there looks to be 12-15 teams with the kind of pieces you could envision coming together well enough to win a title, given that there is no true heavyweight. I expect MSU to be one of that group.