After a very quiet summer in which there was little action outside of rumor and the occasional unofficial visit, events got wild in the past week for MSU basketball recruiting. The central wavemaker was the status of Coach Izzo and staff's pursuit of a point guard for the 2014 class.
First, let's talk about why Michigan State needs a point guard so badly and how we got here. MSU hasn't brought in a true point guard since Travis Trice in the 2011 class. Trice has struggled with the physical nature of Big Ten play and spent much of his first two seasons battling injuries. The Spartans also have Denzel Valentine for spot duty at the position but consider the wing roster in the 2014. The likely returning players will be Valentine, sophomore Alvin Ellis, and redshirt senior Russell Byrd who has been able to prove himself a reliable contributor. Gary Harris is almost definitely gone next season and Branden Dawson feels like a 60/40 prospect, ready or not. An impact freshman could help but even then Denzel will probably start on the wing and the guy needs a breather at some point. So, there's definitely a roster need.
In addition, MSU passed or missed earlier opportunities to add a PG for this year. The recruitment of Demetrius Jackson fizzled after lots of sparks, Derrick Walton committed to Michigan before MSU could offer, and numerous near-MSU players like Monte Morris, Denzel Watts, and Wes Clark headed elsewhere for school in 2013.
All this resulted in the door being wide open for someone to be handed the keys in 2014-2015 as Michigan State's point guard of the future. We all know that MSU's first choice was Minnesota All-Star Tyus Jones. For a while, this looked promising with heavy contact and reports out of Apple Valley that Coach Izzo was in great shape to land Jones. Then Jabari Parker picked Duke in a small upset, Duke reinforced the narrative of having Izzo's number in the NCAA tournament, and Jones & MSU drifted apart as all the word became that Jones was headed to Duke.
Then, a light at the end of the tunnel emerged this summer. A deeply-undersized but playmaking and scoring guard named Tyler Ulis exploded in AAU ball and took on national attention. Bonus, he was the cousin of former MSU captain and GA Travis Walton. MSU appeared to have the inside track if they jumped on the opportunity to offer Ulis. Maybe they moved a beat too late not ready to give up on the investment in Tyus Jones easily but when MSU finally offered Ulis, the late summer passed without the expected commitment. Then, Kentucky offered Ulis and the rest is history as Ulis committed to the Wildcats tonight.
Since losing out on Ulis, MSU has watched their next option Quentin Snider commit to Illinois before even taking his visit to Michigan State. This leaves us with two likely candidates to help MSU "get to the point."
The first player is Riley LaChance out of Wisconsin. LaChance seems like exactly the sort of player who is benefitting from a run on point guards by desperate teams and finds himself with offers a bit beyond his ability. Until this week, his best offers were from schools like Davison, Creighton, Baylor, Vanderbilt, and Xavier. LaChance's best attribute appears to be his ability to shoot and there's some scouting talk that he's more of a shooting guard forced to play PG because of his size. However, LaChance has plenty experience running his team's offense and shows the ability to be a competent point guard at the next level.
As coaches scramble, offers are still coming in for LaChance. The post-Ulis/Snider shakedown led to his picking up a Minnesota offer as they appeaer nervous about their position with their own primary target, Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn. LaChance is coming into to Michigan State this weekend and it will be very interesting to see if the staff offers him on site or throws the die on letting Riley wait a bit longer.
That brings us to a player lots of people are excited about. Sure, there's a star factor. While LaChance rates around a fringe Top 100 guy, Nairn is a solid 4-star with high major offers who was recently deciding between Indiana, Oklahoma, and Minnesota before Michigan State got in touch this week and quickly set up a visit. Lots of things seem to look good for MSU. Though Nairn's coaches have said that MSU expressed interest much earlier in the recruiting cycle, they received an enthusiastic reception to their latest overtures. Within days of the offer, "Tum Tum" was up for an official visit which he's taking today. His high school coach has given great interviews discussing how his player would be a great fit and MSU and how Lourawls is an "Izzo-type guy." If people are playing straight (and their actions say they are), MSU doesn't appear to be at any disadvantage for getting involved late. They appear squarely in the mix and some even handicap them as a favorite. Diamond Leung has good stuff over at Mlive.
The Green & White's biggest competition for Lourawls Nairn might be Tom Crean and Indiana. Lourawls has a final official planned for Bloomington next weekend and it could be shortly after that when we get an answer about his destination. The coaches aren't the only ones hustling and players want to be sure that they don't lose their scholarship spot. Crean is selling Nairn that there's room for him to play with Yogi Ferrell but the PT opportunity appears even bigger at Michigan State.
The scouting reports and videos provide more reasons to be excited. The book on Nairn is speed, speed, speed. He's known as lightning quick on the court and dangerous when exploding to the basket. Watching him, you can also see the strength and power in his build and he looks fully prepared for the Big Ten. The limitation of "Tum Tum" is his shooting touch but his reputation as a worker might mean that his marksmanship will improve with more focus in college. Beyond that, he has the reputation as a leader, communicator, and workhorse. Sweeping in and adding Lourawls to the Spartan family could be a major coup and stop the bleeding in the MSU 2014 recruiting class. We should know soon. In the meantime, vids:
2014 PG Lourawls Nairn highlights (via Prep1Force)
2014 PG Lourawls 'Tum Tum' Nairn highlights from the 2013 Hardwood Classic (via KUTheShiver)
Odds & Ends -
How bad is it, @Jim_McEvoy asks. How about "Not encouraging, potentially disastrous." The WOTS appears to be stronger every day that Cliff Alexander is headed elsewhere. That's monumentally disappointing, in some ways worse than Jabari and Ulis. Over a year ago, Alexander was vocal about his love and preference for Michigan State and nine times out of ten, you get those guys. A miracle could happen here to bring Cliff back in the fold but that's what it might take.
So, MSU is down to only a few targets for fall signing. The miss on Ulis appears to hurt the Spartans' chance with Devin Booker but he may not follow his friend Ulis to Kentucky. Even then, the University of Michigan is strong competition. Everyone believes Reid Travis will jump at his recent offer from Duke but that may be just faith in the power of K. I wouldn't write Travis off but I wouldn't fit him for a Spartan uniform yet either. Kevon Looney is the mystery man. It's not clear how exactly Duke wants to play their class and if they have room for every frontcourt player they've offered. Looney also hasn't given much away about his preference. Like Travis, I wouldn't write him off or pencil him in.
Bottomline, unless Izzo hits a late grand slam, the recruiting class will probably include someone (or someones) who we're not talking about right now. For perspective, this is the likely roster next season:
PG: Trice (Sr.)
Wings: Valentine (Jr.), Ellis (So.), Byrd (RS Sr.), Dawson (Sr.)?
Bigs: Costello (Jr.), Kaminski (RS So.), Schilling (So.), Gauna (RS Sr.)
From the looks of that, MSU could use at least one body at every spot and I would be surprised if this class were less than three players next fall. Considering the dubious positioning with the recruiting targets on the list, there's probably more turns and surprises ahead. If nothing else, Michigan State might have a future point guard soon, either in the form of Riley LaChance or Lourawls Nairn.