Who is excited for basketball season? Who is now more excited after this weekend? I kid, but I'm one of the basketball-first guys around here so I was ready to head up for each of MSU's exhibition games last week. Following up on Midnight Madness a few weeks ago, preparing for Coach Izzo's 20th season has been exciting. As part of our prep for the opening game on Friday night against Navy, here are my thoughts and reactions from seeing MSU play two games against admittedly weak competition.
Offensively, this team has a lot of perimeter talent. Since watching him light things up at Moneyball this summer, I have been on full BUY mode for junior Denzel Valentine. I wouldn't be shocked if he led this team in both points and assists. As a scorer, Denzel plays much smoother than we're used to. His 3pt percentage should jump this year. They've been falling for him in exhibition play (9-14 )and his stroke and confidence looks excellent. Seven a game is a lot attempts for him, but it is hard to argue with the results. Valentine is shooting open looks in rhythm. Denzel's ability to do everything else is still in evidence as he picked up a triple double against St. Cloud St. Last thought - he's started slowly in both games but hasn't let that rattle him at all. He's scoring but he's doing it with patience and without forcing the issue. There's something about his game that remains "sneaky" despite the output.
Valentine love-fest aside, Bryn Forbes and Travis Trice will also knock down a high percentage of threes. In the exhibition, Trice has been increasingly comfortable with his midrange game. His improved strength as a senior has also led to a respectable game driving in the paint. Along with Valentine, Trice is someone we shouldn't worry about. He's a more complete offensive player than he's ever been. Forbes hasn't been as effective on defense and that's been a vocalized concern from Tom Izzo. Neither he nor Alvin Ellis III has stepped up there. Alvin is on the list of players I have some concerns about. Watching him, there's no doubt that he has the ability to make an occasional highlight offensive play. Hoping to pick up where Gary Harris left off, Ellis III has good body control and can contort himself to get around defenders to score at the rim. However, he doesn't play to his strengths consistently. His overall demeanor comes off as a floating, yet when he gets aggressive he looks like he's pressing. If Javon Bess is ready to play in December, I think he pushes Ellis for playing time. Looking ahead to next season, Ellis might be in danger of being an odd-man out.
Along with "who will emerge on the wing?," another BIG offseason question was what MSU can expect out of its duo of centers, Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello. In two exhibition games, they received a C- on Monday and A- on Friday. It was a glaring weakness against The Master's College. Matt Costello in particular looked surprisingly uncomfortable for a player with two years of experience. Gavin Schilling showed improvement but his rawness and youth was still apparent. I left Monday very concerned about this position, and I think many fans were frustrated on not seeing more from these two. Friday night was completely different. Something lit a fire under Matt Costello who responded actively to the team's aggressive attempts to feed him the ball. He scored twelve early points with an array of post moves. He was a much quieter presence after that so perhaps the team needs to continue to stoke his confidence. He also recorded some blocks and still possesses some of the best innate shot-blocking timing of recent MSU posts. Schilling replaced him at 10 minutes in and picked right up with a strong game. His game is still all within five feet, but he has the speed and athleticism to be threat at the rim. It's going to be interesting to watch the team adjust to Costello vs. Schilling. They attempted numerous lobs to the basket and the margin of error for feeding Schilling is clearly larger. Schilling's athleticism and strength makes him physically imposing whereas Costello has much more of a skill/timing game. Bottom line, if they play like they did on Friday, MSU is in great shape. If it's the Monday demeanor, we're in trouble.
Another player who looked much more at home from Monday to Friday was freshman forward Marvin Clark. It's no secret that Clark is a very raw basketball talent who might benefit from a redshirt. Michigan State's need for big bodies upfront is likely to prevent that from happening. On Friday, he played like he might not need it. After appearing frequently lost on defense against The Master's College, Clark settled in more on Friday. Though his size (6'6") and limited experience is going to be an issue defending the post all season, he didn't look out of place out there. Clark struck me as someone who is going to be able to give MSU 6-10 mpg when Branden Dawson needs to sit and Izzo wants to maintain size. Clark also showed off his shot on Friday. After missing his only attempt earlier in the week, he was 2-2 from deep against St. Cloud. I don't expect him to replace Kenny Kaminski, but Clark won't be a 4-man that opponents can ignore and leave open.
In contrast to being all-aboard on Denzel Valentine, I have been concerned about our freshman point guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn. Yes, he's small, everyone knows that, but that doesn't mean he can't be an important contributor. What might limit him is a weak shot and an inability to finish at the rim. He's credited as 1-5 in the two games and much has been made of his lone jumpshot, which was not accurate. That might have been nerves, but don't expect Nairn to be a scorer any time soon. The question is how much of a limitation that will be in the halfcourt (no doubt about the speedster's ability to run the break). It's Tum Tum more than anyone else I want to see against better competition. He thus far hasn't had to do anything when things really matter. He has the jets to penetrate and get places; what I want to know is what he'll be able to do when he gets there. Against real competition that lane is going to be filled with bigger, stronger, taller, more athletic, basketball savvy guys, and I don't know if Tum is going to be effective right now even as a drive-and-dish guy. Add in that he's a minimal threat to hit a jumper or attack the basket, and we're going to have some challenges to solve. The mix could be fine if he's surrounded by athletes and shooters, but we've watched MSU struggle with a point guard who can't/won't score. The Spartans don't want to play that way for 10+ minutes a night.
Branden Dawson has been good, not great. He's right where you would expect him to be from his body of work over three years. Everyone is hoping for more than that though. Dawson needs to be a force who can score inside and grab rebounds. He was that for the opening on Monday; Dawson's early play was a bright spot. As much as we talk about the perimeter game and shooting, that is more for the 2015 NBA Draft than the 2014-2015 Spartans. There is plenty of perimeter talent and shooting on this team. Where we're undermanned and inexperienced is Dawson's position of the 4. It'll be interesting to see what Dawson brings when games get serious. MSU needs the A+ version of himself to take a step up in expectations. He continues to be our X-factor.
After two games, it's clear that we don't know exactly how good this team might be yet. Unlike some past teams where it was a either clearly a rebuilding year or a loaded squad, this team has both major question marks and players that can be relied upon. They have looked like the team Coach Izzo has been talking about. Scoring shouldn't be a problem. We have numerous shooters, players who can drive to the basket, a top-notch offensive rebound grabber, and two centers who should be expected to improve. The assist ratios have been high as well, and with Valentine, Trice, Nairn, etc., this team has already looked very unselfish and willing to distribute the ball. I would imagine that numerous players' scoring marks will rise and fall based on who is getting open looks and matchups. Like our team two years ago, one question will be what happens when shots aren't falling or stout defense with perimeter length denies open looks. Will the ballhandlers be able to make plays by shifting the defense? Can we go into the paint to score tough points? Is anyone besides Branden Dawson prepared to rebound at a high level? What are the limits if this team's identity is more finesse than power?
Defense might be a struggle all year. Bryn Forbes is 6'3" and lightly built, while Alvin Ellis III doesn't look like an exceptional perimeter defender. There has been talk that Bess is one of the stronger defenders of the bunch but how much can you expect from a freshman getting his first PT in December? Down low, we may have issues as well. Marvin Clark is inexperienced and his bball IQ is a work in progress. Also, nothing is going to magically give this team post size. After Costello and Schilling, the only rotation player over 6'6" is Colby Wollenman. While Colby played significant minutes in the expectation, I expect the shooting, strength, athleticism, and "upside" of Marvin Clark Jr. to keep him largely on the bench. How will MSU do against 6'11" centers alongside 6'9" power forwards?
Overall, one of the excitements around this team is that we don't know exactly what we're going to get. With so many new faces, some players' fortunes will wax and wane as the season goes on. There will be breakout successes and frustrating disappointments. The potential is excellent. If Denzel Valentine is as good as some think, Dawson has his best season, the bigs excel, the shooters stay hot, and everyone learns to defender a little better, you have a team that might be able to put heat on Wisconsin. If everything spins the wrong way, you're looking at a midpack B1G team fighting for a tournament bid. We'll get a better look this weekend when MSU plays a "real" game against Navy, then tackles some guys named "Duke" on Tuesday.