We're keeping the band together, guys. MSU will enter the 2013-2014 basketball season with 9 of its 10 scholarship players returning while adding a redshirt freshman and two late breaking recruiting commitments to the mix. Adreian Payne's return means only Derrick Nix's minutes will need to be filled from the 2013 Sweet Sixteen squad (setting aside Brandan Kearney's midseason departure). The returning minute percentage will rank among the highest of the Tom Izzo era:
Meanwhile, the talent level remains competitive with any of Izzo's best teams. The four returning starters were all consensus top-40 recruits out of high school, and they all now have substantial college experience to go with their physical talents. Both the wonks and the pundits say this will be a top five team--with only the just-add-water All-McDonalds-All-American Kentucky squad as a consensus pick to finish higher. (BTW, as good as the Big Ten was this past season, don't sleep on the conference for next season. Mr. Hanner's projections have 5 Big Ten teams in the top 13 nationally.)
Still, there are question marks. While there's only one starting position to be filled, there's not a slam dunk answer as to how to fill it. Beyond Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, and Adreian Payne, the two most reliable returning contributors are both guards: Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. Izzo will no doubt go small at times, particularly late in games. (An Appling/Harris/Valentine/Dawson/Payne lineup can defend and rebound just fine.) But he's going to want to keep Payne mostly at the 4-spot, both for Payne's pro development and to create mismatches against smaller opponents.
That means a couple guys are going to have to step up among the bigs. Matt Costello is the leading candidate to grab that fifth starting spot, having shown flashes of his Mr. Basketball abilities down the stretch this past season (particularly on defense). Alex Gauna, with three years in the program now under his belt, will also get significant minutes, but Costello outperformed across him the board statistically this past season. Of particular note: 18.2% vs. 13.0% on the defensive glass and 8.0% vs. 0.5% in block rate. Still, Costello only played double digit minutes 5 times as a freshman; there will be some bumps in the road as he adjusts to a much expanded role.
Kenny Kaminski should add a different look as a stretch four, Russell Byrd will take another crack at finding his stroke and joining the rotation, and Alvin Ellis and Gavin Schilling will be important insurance policies. (Payne's return makes Schilling to a good bet to redshirt.)
Here's a stab at what the rotation will look like in competitive games (the numbers are approximate minutes played):
(Notes: Trice's and Dawson's minutes are split across position groups. Appling may not technically be the "point" when both he and Trice are on the floor. These numbers imply that Payne would spend about 8 minutes per game at the 5-spot, rather than the 4. Not assuming any minutes from the two freshmen at this point.)
Outside of replacing Nix's post touches as a way to initiate offense, not a lot needs to change about this team to become a legitimate national title contender. (Early take on the offensive approach: Expect more dribble drive action, as Appling, Harris, and Valentine can all create going toward the basket, in different ways.) It's really all about individual player development. Dawson, Trice, and Byrd will all get offseasons at 100% health to work on their games (knock on wood). Dawson, in particular, will get the chance he didn't have last year to develop an effective mid-range jumpshot to set up the rest of his game. Valentine and Costello are prime sophomore breakout candidates.
In a perfect world, the team would be adding a little more talent through its recruiting class (*cough* Jabari Parker *cough*). But that's really the only major negative you can point to. The depth is a little shaky in terms of known offensive quantities, but the 2013 team showed that Izzo can win some games even without nine consistently reliable contributors. (The team's depth ratio of 5.11 was the worst since at least 1997.) Absent a major injury, the pieces are all there.
This is about as good a scenario as Tom Izzo could ask for to (1) keep his every-four-year-player's-gone-to-a-Final-Four streak alive and (2) take his best shot at winning that elusive second national title. Yes, past MSU teams that entered the season as national title contenders haven't always performed up to those expectations, but those teams didn't have two guys who legitimately could have left for the NBA the year prior on the roster, either.
Now, we need to just find a way to kill the next six months.