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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 14 Michigan State Spartans

Photo: Icon Sportswire

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter who graduated and who’s returning for the Michigan State Spartans–coach Tom Izzo is still around, and that’s what matters most in East Lansing.

He knows what to do and how to do it, regardless of the amount of star power on his roster.

Since 1995, Izzo has crafted one of the most successful programs in all of college basketball. This past season, he took a supposed “bubble” team to the Final Four; it was his seventh since 1999, which also happens to be the most in college hoops during that span.

Whether it’s a Final Four or a Sweet 16, odds of a run through March always favor the Spartans, who should be among the top teams in the Big Ten in 2015-16. Competing with the top-third of the conference should be expected as the Spartans look to lay the foundation for an upcoming national title chase.

As usual, the race will be physical–and perhaps a bit faster–from start to finish. Wisconsin should be there. Maryland.

Even Indiana.

“We’ve got great coaches in our league and the profile of this league has gotten better and better,” Izzo said during Big Ten media day, per conference transcript. “I think we’re not a ‘3 yards and a cloud of dust’ basketball league anymore, and I think that’s helped recruiting. So I think the league is as good as it’s been. And Maryland is definitely the cream of the crop if you look at what they’ve got coming back.

But I think — you know, I see Indiana taking a major jump and then everybody else is going to be fighting for those next spots, at least early on.”

Key Departures

Branden Dawson provided excellent rebounding and that always unknown super-scoring-factor. Capable of dropping 20 on any given night, Dawson often helped pin the opponents with dunk shows.

And as the school’s leading shot-blocker (121), the 6’6″, 230-pounder certainly did his part on defense.

But he’s now with the L.A. Clippers. His four years have expired, but his presence will be missed this season. The same holds true for Travis Trice, Izzo’s former senior point guard who helped engineer the run to the 2015 Final Four. Today, the 6’0″, 170-pounder is with the New York Knicks.

He was, without question, the guy who made it all go-round in 2014-15. Dawson was there, sure. So was Denzel Valentine–who’ll be a key player this season–but Trice capped his career in storybook Izzo point-guard fashion. His averages of 15.3 points and five assists per game speak volumes.

Trice reached that coveted star point guard level for Izzo. Coaches just can’t replace that. They can hope to replicate it. But they can’t just snap a finger and replace it.

Key Additions

Former West Virginia shooting guard Eron Harris is now eligible for the Spartans. Late this past season, the 6’4,” 205-pound junior nearly ended his career in East Lansing. “Thankful” to be back, the versatile scorer should bring about another level of offense for Michigan State.

Read more on Eron Harris’ quest for redemption

Izzo’s going to need it, too. Together, Trice and Dawson averaged roughly 26 of 71 points per game.

“I think he’ll fit in well. He can really shoot the ball. He’s very athletic. I think the two things he had to work on is finding a shot he didn’t like, that was one, and I think he’s made some progress,” Izzo said of Harris. “And guarding somebody, and I think he’s made some progress in that area.

I really like Eron. He’s worked hard. He’s a gym rat. I think, if there’s one thing I’ll say about him and Denzel, they kind of bring forward — those guys have kind of led some other guys — we have a lot of guys who have turned into gym rats. And gym rats is every coach’s dream, and definitely Eron Harris is one of them.”

According to 247Sports, the Spartans signed the No. 18-ranked recruiting class of 2015. With 4-star power forward Deyonta Davis, 4-star shooting guard Matt McQuaid and 3-star shooting guard Kyle Ahrens, the Spartans have a youthful trio that could immediately contribute quality minutes.

At 6’8″ and roughly 245 pounds, Davis brings the obvious size and strength factors. He’s incredibly athletic. Back in August, the Spartans hosted an invite-only practice for the media. During that time, Davis showed off a nice mid-range shot while doing light drills with Ahrens and McQuaid.

That same day, former Spartans guard Austin Thornton said this year’s crop of freshmen has adapted well to the college ranks. Thornton said he was impressed by Davis’ progress and raw ability; he also couldn’t say enough positives about the attitudes of Ahrens, McQuaid and walk-on Connor George.

Read more on MSU’s 2015 class

Schedule Analysis

Izzo is well known for scheduling early tests. As they stand today, the Spartans will play Kansas, Louisville and Florida before Christmas. There’s also a possibility of meeting Pac-12 power Arizona during the John Wooden Legacy tournament on Nov. 29.

Of course, the normal Big Ten docket of Michigan (once), Ohio State (twice), Indiana (once) and Wisconsin (twice) will apply. Then there’s Maryland, which won both meetings (68-66 2OT, 75-59) in 2014-15. The Terps are the ones to catch, it seems. There might be a Round 2 during the Big Ten Tournament, but for right now, Izzo’s Spartans are likely focused on planning for a not-so welcoming pre-conference lineup of Kansas, Louisville and Florida.

Preview and Prediction

Michigan State needs work up front, so senior forward Matt Costello must assert himself–there’s no other way to say it. When at full tilt, he’s aggressive and difficult to handle. Other times, the 6’9″, 245-pounder seems to remove himself from the action. As a junior, he averaged seven points and a shade above five rebounds per game. Those numbers need to be closer to 10 and 10 on a nightly basis–especially given the fact that Dawson, the team’s leading rebounder, is no longer available to shoulder the load.

Point guards make the offenses work in East Lansing, so it’ll be on sophomore Lourawls “Tum-Tum” Nairn to continue maturing into his role as “quarterback.” The 5’10,” 175-pound speedster will have help from Valentine–the “quarterback” tag probably fits him a little better.

He’s not a point guard, but the 6’5,” 220-pound senior defies position. At this stage of the game, he’s an extension of Izzo–the most important extension. Valentine knows each of the five spots and has clearly demonstrated the ability to run an offense without actually playing the 1.

In 2014-15, he averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He’s truly a do-all.

Nairn and Valentine. Nairn and Bryn Forbes. Watch for those connections.

Visibly more muscular during the August practice session, Forbes, now a 6’4,” 200-poundish senior, should bring more strength to an already strong offensive approach. Silky from 3-point land, great with the mid-range touch–Forbes offers several ways for Michigan State to get the job done. And again, without Trice and Dawson, Izzo will need every bit of scoring he can get this season.

Losing two of the better scorers in recent team history won’t be easy to overcome.

But Forbes has that spark. On March 1, the Spartans lost 68-61 to then No. 5-ranked Wisconsin. Forbes shot 8-for-9 and scored 21 points. That type of production may not come every night, but it shouldn’t be so in-and-out this season.

Junior forward Gavin Schilling has been one of the most up-and-down players on Izzo’s roster. Late this past season, Izzo said that the 6’9,” 245-pound big man needed to “fall in love” with basketball. He can’t just like it. He has to really love it. In 2014-15, he averaged 5.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He only played 16 minutes, though, and they weren’t always the most disciplined; he fouled three times as a sophomore and accumulated four fouls at least nine times.

Some were fouls to give. Some were good fouls. But a lot of them were bad fouls that came at the worst possible times.

Marvin Clark, a sophomore forward, is recovering from a broken foot and could be available in November.

Guards Javon Bess, a sophomore, and Alvin Ellis III, a junior, have yet to make a mark, but Izzo expressed optimism while discussing their potential during the media practice event in August. Health will play a part, for Bess (foot) and Ellis III (ankle).

Not to mention willpower.

For them, it’s about playing smarter, more consistent basketball.

And for a team that’s revving up for another national championship run, it’s sink or swim for anyone not on board with Izzo’s plan.

Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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