A bit unexpectedly, the Michigan State Spartans flamed out against the Duke Blue Devils last Friday night without much of a fight. Few things went right late and midway through the second half, and it was obvious the Spartans would be going home.
Perhaps the best news from the defeat, though, was that Michigan State would only graduate one senior off a roster in transition which had already made a second straight run to the Sweet 16. Three freshmen, most notably Gary Harris, played important minutes and gained valuable experience. Juniors Adriean Payne and Keith Appling also continued their positive development forward, showing definite signs of breaking out at times.
That doesn’t mean any of the mentioned players should be thinking about making the jump to the NBA, however. Yesterday, Tom Izzo announced he’d help Payne, Appling and Harris seek NBA evaluation to help them make their tough career decision. I understand the concept of due diligence, but none of these players are truly ready for the next level, nor should consider leaving school early.
Harris played outstanding for a freshman, but he’s still a freshman. He isn’t near the level of Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, or any of the other one and done’s that have recently flown the coop after one season in college. If Harris is seeking a career mentor, he need only look down the road to Ann Arbor at Trey Burke. After wondering if the NBA was right for him after a great freshman year, Burke returned and has led his Wolverines to an impressive Final Four run, maximizing his stock further.
For Appling and Payne, this decision should be more about pride and the program. They’ve matured while watching the blood, sweat and tears of seniors Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green and Derrick Nix. For those players, team success far outweighed anything that could be accomplished individually. Payne has taken some impressive leaps forward, but needs another year of seasoning to showcase his explosion and knock on the door of the lottery. Appling was far too inconsistent at times during his junior year to justify leaving. Both need to become big senior leaders next year and drive the bus. They’re each the key cogs.
If all three of these pieces return, the Spartans could be considered a top contender in 2014 given their depth and bevy of young talent. At this point, the focus for everyone should be commitment towards improving their own games during the summer and finding a way to get Michigan State back to the Final Four and championship game. This group certainly has the potential for an extended run, especially with the infusion of young talent which entered last fall and will only mature over time. The only way this group will harness the mental power to advance is by getting angry and getting to work.
Michigan State’s trio of impressive 2014 building blocks already exist. Now, it’s just a matter of hopefully stacking them back into place early in the offseason.
Player Of The Year: Gary Harris, G. Considering he was a freshman, Harris was a surprising talent. It didn’t take him long to learn the college game, and he was rarely overwhelmed, taking home Big Ten freshman of the year honors. The sky is the limit for Harris, who made multiple big plays offensively, showcased impressive shooting range and was an excellent defender. He can form perhaps the nation’s best backcourt with Appling next year should each return to East Lansing. Honorable Mention: Adreian Payne.
Game Of The Year: Michigan at Michigan State. The Spartans took their rivals from Ann Arbor behind the woodshed for a good old fashioned beating. The passion and excitement around East Lansing for a match up between two of the nation’s top ten teams was palpable, and created the most exciting game we saw in 2013. It was Michigan State’s perfect game during the season, and definitely the high water mark for the Spartans, who may have peaked this night. The game also may have taught a thing or two to the Wolverines, who have certainly improved since. Honorable Mention: Michigan State vs. Kansas, Champions Classic.
Most Important “State” Stat Of The Year: 13.3, the amount of turnovers the Spartans averaged during the 2012-13 season including 13.8 on the road, which ranked 184th nationally. If there’s something Michigan State must focus on for next year, it’s limiting the turnovers. It was the one bugaboo which caused the Spartans to lose at times, and really held the team back. Michigan State should try hard to whittle this number down around 10. If they’re able to do that, they’ll certainly contend for a national title.
Who Needs To Improve The Most? Branden Dawson, F. Coming off a tough knee injury, Dawson started the season surprisingly hot and showed flashes of becoming an excellent player. Despite that, he was inconsistent down the stretch and disappeared at times, especially offensively. During the offseason, Dawson needs to continue working on his jump shot while adding a bit more range. Much will be said about how the Spartans will replace Nix’s offensive and rebounding output, but Dawson can be the guy to fill that void if he continues improving and working hard. Honorable Mention: Denzel Valentine.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax