True "summer" is almost here and there's been a lot happening with Michigan State basketball recruiting so it's a good time to take full inventory focusing on the 2014 class. This is a going to be a special edition of the round-up functioning almost like a "hotlist" revisited where we try to get the big picture of who is out there, what players are likely to MSU, and what fans can expect from this class.
Let's start by recapping the scholarship situation. MSU is expected to have 12 scholarships committed next season (Trice, Appling, Valentine, Harris, Dawson, Ellis, Byrd, Kaminski, Costello, Gauna, Payne, Schilling). Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will open scholarships in 2014 bringing the practically "guaranteed" number available to three. An important consideration is the likelihood that Gary Harris will declare for the NBA draft after completing his sophomore season. It's also possible that Branden Dawson will forgo his senior year and MSU could be faced with an unexpected departure via transfer.
That makes at least four open scholarship spots likely and five (or more) certainly possible. I go through this because we shouldn't have any concerns about someone having to be "pushed out" of the program if Michigan State enters summer of 2014 for four incoming freshmen.
The 2014-2015 roster tentatively looks like this:
PGs (1): Travis Trice (Sr.)
Wings (4): Denzel Valentine (Jr.), Russell Byrd (RS Sr.), Alvin Ellis (So.), Branden Dawson (Sr.). I'm not including Harris; I'm penning him in as gone.
There's room at every position. Most important is point guard. I'm not concerned about this squad being in the hands of Travis Trice as the starting point guard provided he can stay healthy. However, there's plenty of playing time for another point to step in and contribute right away if not challenge Trice for the starting spot. In addition, whoever does accept that scholarship is in great shape to get even more playing time going forward. Though need may shift this, I really see Denzel Valentine as a talented ball-handling wing for Michigan State as opposed to a true point. This will help get the most of his defensive ability and put another ballhandler out there along with a traditional point guard.
Meeting this need is tricky for MSU. Replacing Tyus Jones would be a great "problem" to have but, if MSU's 2014 PG spot is occupied by a one-and-done, then Denzel Valentine is it unless MSU brings in a 2015 point guard who can be an immediate impact player. That puts the possibility of trying to add both Jones and Tyler Ulis into perspective and why it can't be ruled out as part of Coach Izzo's plan. If Tom Izzo can nab Tyus Jones in addition to Tyler Ulis, it might be the greatest balancing act of his recruiting history.
My general thinking about this class is one PG, one wing, one big man, and then a fourth "best player available." Two PGs only makes sense if they're both excellent players like Ulis and Jones but fitting in two wings or two posts would be easy, especially if they had complimentary roles. You could take Cliff Alexander as a PF and play him alongside a center like Jahlil Okafor. Adding a true guard like Devin Booker would be no obstacle to also taking a long wing-forward like Paul White.
Speaking of point guards...
Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, MN)
Officially, Tyus is only considering seven schools - Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Baylor. He only has one official visit planned, which is to Baylor in August. Jones has already visit some of those schools and probably knows the Minnesota campus as well as any so the five officials visits are probably not an impediment to him continuing to consider all seven. Recent comments to the StarTribune suggests he's aware that there could be an odd school out.
While many people believe Jones and Jahlil Okafor are done deals to Duke, that conclusion might be premature. Official visits can change things and I doubt the coaches from these other programs are convinced they're out of it. I think this one goes down to the wire with only rumor and speculation giving hints. Trust in Izzo to work some magic.
Tyler Ulis (Matteson, IL)
After picking up an offer, Tyler Ulis had some glowing things to tell SpartanMag and it appears his relationship with his cousin Travis Walton has made him very fond of MSU. He's recently cut his list to a final seven of DePaul, Florida State, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue and USC. You never want to be overconfident but that competition sets up well for the Spartans.
Ulis as a player is no joke. He's been invited to the NBA Top 100 Camp and Nike's Deron Williams Point Guard Skills Academy. Ulis played huge at the big-time EBYL AAU event and is a ranked as high as #69 nationally by Rivals. For anyone concerned about stars, his rankings will only continue to rise as he demonstrates that his 5'8" statue isn't enough to stop him. Along with Cliff Alexander, Ulis might be one of the players Spartan fans can be most confident about adding to the fold.
Jordan Barnett (St. Louis, MO)
Barnett is a newer name to MSU basketball recruiting and is a versatile inside/outside wing forward with strong athletic ability. It's difficult to pin down a firm offer list but schools like Florida, Iowa, Kansas St., Missourri, and Stanford are in the mix. It's also widely reported that Barnett has an MSU offer. A video of Jordan showing his skills is here:
Devin Booker (Moss Point, MS)
Booker is someone who has really seen the appraisals of his game rise. He's reached close to a "pick his school" level with offers from Duke, Michigan, Kentucky, Michigan State, Florida, North Carolina and others. Originally a Grand Rapids native, it'll be interesting to see whether ties to the Great Lakes State bring him to Michigan. He's a major priority as a marksman for John Beilein and his three-point reliant offense and Tom Izzo hasn't been shy about travelling all the way down to Mississippi to visit Booker and watch him play. UM should feel good about their chances but this could still be a toss-up with ACC and SEC teams.
Josh Cunningham (Morgan Park/Chicago, IL)
Cunningham has had a great month and if you enter his name into twitter, the recent feed is a steady stream of praises: "warrior-like mentality. Soaring for rebounds, finishing, diving on floor," "Mac Irvin Fire's Josh Cunningham just put someone on a poster!" "Athletic, knocking down jumpers. Active," etc. Playing for the Mac Irvin Fire, he should be very familiar to the MSU staff. Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander have been getting some rest periods for the AAU squad and Cunningham has used the opportunity to show his skill including a greatly expanded perimeter game and shooting touch.
He has offers from Bradley, DePaul, Iowa, Iowa State, Missouri, Nebraska, Northwestern, Oklahoma, and UMass. Michigan and Michigan State have been keeping tabs on him. Because of the attention given to his teammates, it's likely that Cunningham will end up committing to a school on the high end of his ability. It's not clear how he projects at the next level and he's working on making sure he is ready to play the small forward position in college. He might not get his wish at already 200lbs and 6'7. Like Kenny Kaminski appears to have at MSU, he might grow into a confirmed post player.
Sam Logwood (LaPorte, IN)
Sam visited Michigan State last winter and had a visit he claimed was one of his best. He recently told ChicagoHoopsMedia that he holds offers from Auburn, IUPUI, Bradley, and Mississippi State and he liked Auburn, Xavier, and Michigan State. The word is still out on how far Logwood can take his game. Dave Telep is a fan and notes that he has a frame ready for the physicality required to be a Big Ten wing. Logwood might not be next in line for a Spartan offer but he could be in the mix later in the fall.
Kevon Looney (Milwaukee, WS)
Looney is a consensus Top 10 player in the 2014 class and his offer list is fitting with Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Florida, and Georgetown all vying for his services. It's hard to get a read on where his recruitment is at but he's expressed strong interest in visiting Duke, Florida, and MSU amongst his suitors. Like others in the "wing" category, Looney might end up more of a power forward than a true wing. He's a very strong rebounder and can attack the basket so he could maintain a spot as a big wing in the MSU offense. Looney is also noted as a high energy effort guy often a vital quality for a great rebounder. He recently re-affirmed to Evan Flood that he'd like to be down to five schools later this summer. Don't count MSU out of this one if Tom Izzo and Dane Fife (apparently his primary recruiter) stay all-in.
D'Angelo Russell (Montverde, Florida)
This player is another national Top 25 caliber recruit. He's known as a high volume scorer with a good jumper and the ability to attack the lane with floaters and other finishes. A native of Louisville now playing down in Florida, his home city school would love to keep him nearby. Evan Daniels reported that MSU had shown interest in Russell back in January but it wasn't clear after that how serious things were. He was quote in Zagsblog that "I have a visit set up with Kentucky when I get back home and I'm trying to get up to Michigan State, Ohio State again, North Carolina...those are the schools that I can think of that I have visits set up for." There's sometimes a gap between public perception of a recruitment and what's going on behind the scenes so Russell's intention to get up to East Lansing is a tell that the Spartans might be a more serious player for him that it initially appeared.
He has a junior mixtape here:
A.J. Turner (Warren, MI)
Turner recently trqualified to slide back a year and join the 2015 class. It's likely that he'll still be in the mix for MSU but not for an additional year.
Paul White (Chicago, IL)
White doesn't always get talked about in the same breaths as Cliff Alexander, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, and the other elites of the Chicago area. Still, his evaluations place him firmly in the 40-60 range nationally and he has an impressive offer list including much of the Big Ten, Arizona, Baylor, and others. When you study his game, it's easy to understand why. Despite being a legit 6'7" (or taller), White really possesses a guard's game with strong perimeter skills. He's also very long which could make him a disruptive defender. A college conditioning program will help add strength and that should be a major factor in making him an even better player. It's difficult to gauge his recruitment but he is playing for Meanstreets alongside Tyler Ulis this summer. MSU is a newer offer so their level of interest might pick up.
Jahlil Okafor (Chicago, IL)
Mr. Okafor is joined at the hip with his friend Tyus Jones and they continue to double down on their intent to play together in college. While that might not be any major tell concerning their destination, what it probably does say is that they and their families are confident that there's already at least one school on the list that both young men would be comfortable playing at together. With their shared list including Michigan State, Duke, Ohio State, Kentucky, and Kansas, it isn't hard to fathom an appealing choice or five amongst the bunch. Not much more needs to be said about Okafor. He's a huge player like a taller Jared Sullinger, to whom he's often compared. With his size and skill set he's s prototypical NBA center. He'd be an immediate force at any school he chooses.
Cliff Alexander (Chicago, IL)
In many ways, Cliff Alexander is probably Michigan State's most important recruit on this list. The need in the post isn't the same as at point guard but Tom Izzo has been pursuing this Top 5 talent for a long time and, at times, perceived to be a leader in the recruitment. Seeing Alexander go elsewhere would be a demoralizing blow. When he was first being recruiting, he was viewed as a raw prospect with strong defensive instincts who was bound close to the rim. Since then, he's only gotten better and better and has had scouts saying without hesitation that he could be as strong a post prospect as anyone in his class, including Jahlil Okafor.
What remains to be seen is whether Cliff is just being patient and will stick wire to wire with MSU as his favorite or if another school as caught up and passed the Spartans by. It's worth reiterating that Alexander has talked with seriousness about playing with Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor (who he now partners with in the Mac Irvin Fire). I'll say this: if Jones/Okafor does add a third party, Cliff Alexander makes a lot of sense and Michigan State is as likely a choice as any other.
Reid Travis (Minneapolis, MI)
This Minneapolis area forward received a Michigan State offer last January. He's also a heavily recruited football player and is planning to decide how to balance sports this fall in conjunction with choosing a program to attend. In talking with Travis Hines of the Ames Tribune he mentioned ISU, Stanford, Gonzaga, Michigan State and Northwestern as teams firmly in the mix and, as a Top 50 player, he has an even wider full offer list. Travis is still developing as an offensive player but he is strong around the basket with his rebounding, instincts, and ability to absorb contact. A bruising 6'7", 235 power forward with a football mentality could fit well at Michigan State.
Even though pessimism about Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones has some of us concerned or negative about this class, I think this list is a nice reminder what great shape MSU is in. It's obviously numerically impossible for all of these players to don the Green & White but the alternative point is that Michigan State is too great a program and Tom Izzo and his staff are too strong of recruiters to miss on all of them. The odds are good that two or three of the players on this list are going to be Spartan and MSU is in thick with some of the best. Tyler Ulis and Cliff Alexander would be great building blocks around which to add a couple more talents.
It's possible that MSU might yet pick up a sudden summer commitment ala Branden Dawson from one of these players. Even if that occurs, this fall will be a wild time in which a number of these players will be visiting East Lansing and other campuses for official visits. It's been a long time since Michigan State had such a large pool of targets this late in the process so things could be more hectic and exciting in terms of news, rumors, and decisions. If you like following this sort of thing, it's going to be fun. In the meantime, we have more AAU ball arriving in June and July and that could lead to more offers and new priorities. The annual Tom Izzo Spartan Shootout is coming up and that has historically brought some of MSU's top targets back to campus. Jahlil Okafor and Paul White have been past participants already just to name a few.
Again, this list isn't exhaustive. With the sheer number of bodies needed, MSU might be interested in adding a player late who isn't in the picture yet. Until then, this is a summary of MSU's primary recruits and who might expect to sign as Spartans in the coming months.