2015-16 College Basketball Previews: Michigan State Spartans

Over the course of his freshman campaign, point guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn gained the trust of the coaching staff and gained more playing time in the process. In 2015-16, Nairn will be the team's starting point guard, and will look to lead the team on another long tournament run come March.
Over the course of his freshman campaign, point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn gained the trust of the coaching staff and gained more playing time in the process. In 2015-16, Nairn will be the team’s starting point guard, and will look to lead the team on another long tournament run come March.

The Michigan State Spartans are coming off yet another signature Tom Izzo-led NCAA Tournament run in 2014-15, one that saw them advance to the Final Four as a 7-seed. March always brings out the best in Coach Izzo, and he fell just short of winning his second national title at Michigan State.

Heading into 2015-16, the roster for the Spartans will have a familiar look and feel to it in comparison to last year’s team. Yes, two stars are gone, but the Spartans welcome in three fresh faces in terms of recruits, and get the added benefit of having last year’s high-profile transfer eligible to play.

How will the Spartans follow up last year’s tournament run in 2015-16? How well can the Spartans replace the loss of their stars, and how will the newcomers fill those voids? There are a few question marks around the Spartans, all of which should be answered in the first month of the season.

Below, take a read on what one can expect to see from the 2015-16 edition of the Michigan State Spartans.

Who’s Missing

The Michigan State Spartans have had a knack for keeping their star players for the full four years, and developing them into star players in the NCAA. Last season’s team was no different, as two of their biggest stars were seniors and four-year players.

Unfortunately for Tom Izzo and the Spartans this season, those two individuals have graduated from the program. Forward Branden Dawson and guard Travis Trice, two of the team’s leaders over the past two seasons, are gone from last year’s team that reached the Final Four.

Trice was the team’s leader in the back court last season, and ended up splitting time with Lourawls Nairn in the starting lineup as the season moved along. Trice was also the team’s leading scorer, averaging 15.3 points per contest, to go along with 3.2 rebounds and a team-high 197 assists over the course of the year. He also shot 36.9% from three point range.

Dawson, the team’s high-energy forward, is also gone from last year’s team. The big man missed four games due to injury, put still had himself another strong season. Dawson was a double-double threat each night, and ended up averaging 11.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest. He was the team’s go-to option on offense in the paint, and had his fair share of high energy, highlight reel dunks over his career.

Both Trice and Dawson are the type of players that coaches want to have on their team. They are both high-energy players who play the game with a ton of emotion. Handling their emotions got the best of them at times, forcing them off their games slightly, but that happens to everyone over the course of their basketball careers. Trice is a natural leader on the floor, while Dawson brings a level of intensity that can’t be taught or forced on a player. Both players put up strong careers under Tom Izzo in East Lansing for the Spartans, and they will be missed as Michigan State moves on into the future.

Who’s Returning

Even with Branden Dawson and Travis Trice gone from the roster, the Michigan State Spartans bring back their fair share of talent to keep them in contention in the Big Ten this season, and beyond. Add in a recruiting class that adds some pieces that can contribute right away, and a high-profile transfer who is eligible this season, and it won’t be surprising to see Tom Izzo make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

From last season’s team, the likes of Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Gavin Schilling, Lourawls Nairn and Matt Costello all return to lead the way. Add in West Virginia-transfer Eron Harris, and freshmen like Matt McQuaid, Deyonta Davis, and Kyle Ahrens, and the Spartans have talent and depth across the floor.

The key returnee is none other than 6’5” guard Denzel Valentine. He is one of the most versatile players in the entire NCAA, as he is strong in so many different areas on the court. As a junior in 2014-15, Valentine averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and recorded 167 assists on the year, all of which were good for the second-best marks on the team.

On a few occasions in conference, Valentine flirted with a triple-double of points, rebounds, and assists. His ability to have an impact on the game in various ways makes him a threat each and every game. If he’s not shooting well, he can still impact the game in terms of assists and rebounds, and vice versa. He could be in store for another big year n 2015-16, this time as the go-to guy in terms of the offense for Izzo.

The front court duo of Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling are also back this season. Both players saw time in the starting lineups over the course of the year, with Schilling making 33 starts to Costello making just 6. Both appeared in all 39 games for the green and white. Costello averaged 7.0 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest, while Schilling averaged 5.1 points and 3.8 rebounds. Both shot above 50% from the floor on the year. Their rotation seemed to work well for the team last year, so expect more of the same again in 2015-16, with Schilling getting the bulk of the starts.

Sharp-shooting Bryn Forbes and point guard Lourawls Nairn are back to join Valentine in the back court. A season ago, Forbes shot 42.7% from three point range, and averaged 8.5 points per game overall. The Cleveland State-transfer should see an increase in his level of production this year with an increased work load and more playing time.

Nairn slowly gained the trust of the coaching staff over the course of last season, and took some playing time away from Trice. Nairn is a true point guard who won’t blow you away in terms of scoring, but his leadership, work ethic, and reliability make him a threat. He recorded 94 assists a season ago, and only 36 turnovers. Having a reliable player like Nairn controlling the offense will open things up and create opportunities for his teammates.

The x-factor could either be incoming freshman forward Deyonta Davis or West Virginia-transfer Eron Harris. Davis, a 6’9” forward, is expected to slot in where Dawson played last year and become another weapon on the offensive end of the floor. While it’s tough to fill the shoes of Dawson, Davis has the skill set to become a talented player in the Big Ten and the NCAA as a whole.

As for Harris, after sitting out all of last season due to transfer regulations but still practicing with the team, he has familiarized himself with the team and their systems. Harris and Forbes could interchange at the 2-spot, much like Costello and Schilling do up front, and become an impact player for the Spartans this year and hopefully next.

Projected Starting Five

Guard: Lourawls Nairn, Jr. (SO)

Guard: Bryn Forbes (SR)

Guard: Denzel Valentine (SR)

Forward: Deyonta Davis (FR)

Forward: Gavin Schilling (JR)

Schedule Notes

The Breslin Center is widely known as one of the toughest places to play in the NCAA, and the Spartans are pretty well untouchable on their home floor. Last season, however, the Spartans showed some vulnerability on their home floor, going 12 – 4 on the year. Included in those four losses was a head-scratching non-conference loss to Texas Southern.

This season, the Spartans are hoping to re-assert their dominance on their home floor, and their quest begins on opening night with a home date against Florida Atlantic. From there, Michigan State gets an early test as a part of the Champions Classic in Chicago, when they take on Perry Ellis and the Kansas Jayhawks. In the past three years, the Spartans are 1 – 1 in the Champions Classic, besting Kentucky two years ago and losing to Duke last season.

Two home games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Eastern Michigan provide the Spartans with a tune-up before they head to the West Coast to take part in the Wooden Legacy. The Spartans open up against Boston College, and then either take on UC Irvine or Boise State in the next round, depending on the results of the opening contests. With teams like Boise State, Arizona, and Evansville taking part in the Wooden Legacy, the Spartans have the opportunity to play some strong teams that will get them ready for conference action.

Four home games in a row are what await the Spartans when they return to the Breslin Center. Michigan State will welcome Louisville, Binghamton, Maryland-Eastern Shore, and Florida to town between December 2nd and 12th. The Spartans take on Louisville as a part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and is also a rematch from last year’s NCAA Tournament. They also take on a Florida team who has a new bench boss this season, in former Louisiana Tech head coach Michael White, after Billy Donovan made the jump to the NBA.

As a side note, College Court Report will be LIVE at the game against Maryland-Eastern Shore on December 9th, as a member of the media.

A road contest at Northeastern follows the home stand, where the Spartans will play the Huskies in basketball and hockey in a 24-hour span, in a scheduling plan done by Michigan State’s Director of Athletics Mark Hollis.

To close out non-conference play, the Spartans take their talents to the Palace of Auburn Hills to take on the Oakland Golden Grizzlies.

Michigan State will have plenty of opportunities to score signature wins, and assert their dominance on their home court, before the grind of Big Ten play begins on December 29th at Iowa. With the conference as a whole much-improved this year over last, the Spartans will have their hands full pretty well every night from then on out.

Michigan State has a good balance of experience and talent once again this season, which should allow for the team to remain near the top of the Big Ten standings. With teams like Maryland and Purdue bringing back star players of their own, and Michigan getting their stars back healthy, the road through the Big Ten will be a challenging one yet again in 2015-16.

With that said, the Spartans should find themselves back in the NCAA Tournament, and everyone knows that March is Izzo’s time to shine. No matter what happens in the regular season, he brings out the best in his players and always finds a way to make a deep run. If the Spartans can get a favourable first-round match-up in the big dance, don’t count out Izzo and the Spartans from making another deep run.

– T.B.