April 3, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Barring another combination of multi-month rehabs, inexplicable illness, a schedule made up by descendents of Ivan the Terrible and a series of disruptive injuries that begin with the first game, there aren't a lot of scenarios Michigan State coach Tom Izzo isn't envisioning with a smile for 2013-14.
Senior center Derrick Nix is the only Spartan who definitely won't be back next season. That means, as of right now, nine-tenths of the playing group that advanced to MSU's fifth Sweet 16 in six seasons will return.
Yes, there is a realistic chance forward Adreian Payne will choose to parlay an immensely successful junior season into an early application to the NBA.
However, even that possibility didn't dim Izzo's outlook during his annual season-ending wrap-up at the Breslin Center Tuesday, which was held a week earlier than he would have liked because of Friday night's 71-61 loss to Duke in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinal.
"I just want to make sure he does the right thing for Adreian Payne," Izzo said. "It will work out for us either way. We'll still suit up a team if he's gone, and we'll still be damn good.
"Losing Nix is definitely only one guy, not three, and there are things he did we'll appreciate more once he's gone. But I really believe that this team could be really, really good next year. I think everybody's going to get better. I think there are a lot of positives."
Even a semblance of health would be a major step in the right direction.
The Spartans were never completely healthy for even one game while finishing tied for second in the Big Ten race that was decided on the final day of the regular season. And, they amassed a 27-9 record despite playing arguably the toughest conference schedule - featuring matchups with 14 NCAA Tournament qualifiers over the final 18 games - in school history.
With Branden Dawson missing the entire summer training period while rehabilitating from knee surgery and Travis Trice missing most of the off-season after contracting a mysterious illness that caused radical weight-loss, neither had the chance to make the dramatic improvement that typically comes in the months following the freshman season.
Furthermore, although redshirt sophomore guard Russell Byrd said he felt fully recovered going into the opener, he really had no way of knowing how the time he took off following three operations on his left foot would affect him. In the end, the shooting touch for which Izzo recruited Byrd, never returned. The situation got worse immediately because Trice sustained a concussion in the season opener against Connecticut. He re-aggravated that condition after returning to the lineup in January.
Then there's Gary Harris, who endured injuries to both shoulders and still earned conference Freshman of the Year honors. Not to be outdone, junior point guard Keith Appling also had to deal with a bad right (shooting) shoulder during the final third of the season.
Then, to top things off, Payne wrenched his back just two days before MSU played the Blue Devils in Indianapolis.
Because of the absence of a true leader and the daily uncertainty of who was capable of doing what in practice and games, Izzo never felt comfortable with this team.
"Plug one hole and another opens up," Izzo said. "But it wasn't an underachieving team. Don't underestimate what these guys did this year because when you think about our schedule and the amount of games without a break, we were pretty consistent.
"We weren't always great, but we were pretty consistent. I say that because every game we played in, we were in, and that's consistency. At the end of the year, we were still playing for the Big Ten championship. That's consistency. In the NCAA Tournament, our defense and rebounding that maybe wasn't quite as good during the year, was really good. That was consistency.
"We didn't get the job done against Duke, and that's what will drive me all spring, summer and fall."
Izzo pointed out that should Payne return, he'll be a leading candidate for All-America honors along with major national awards. He's also within reach of getting his degree in interdisciplinary studies, a feat some felt wasn't possible because he's afflicted with a learning disability.
"Does it maybe take us to a new level (if he stays)?" Izzo said. "Are you seeing more kids staying in? Does he have some added incentives with graduation and all that with the situation he's been in?"
Is making the leap to the NBA, after averaging 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds, developing a credible outside shot (16 of 42 from 3-point range) and challenging for the Big Ten free-throw title the best thing for Payne?
"Right now, I have no clue," Izzo said. "I think in a lot of ways it would benefit him to come back, but depending on what he's projected as (a draft pick) will determine my advice for him.
"Adreian Payne has been about as model a kid as we could have here. With what he's done in school, what he's done with his improvement in basketball, there would be no way that I would want anything but the best for Adreian Payne. And yet, I will voice my opinion when it's time to on what I think is right."
Izzo will consult the NBA draft advisory board, close friends in the business and even some executives he doesn't know to get the best answer he can for Payne. He said he'll do the same for Appling and Harris, who so far haven't given any indication that they're interested in leaving early.
Each individual player has to determine how important short-term goals, such as graduation, a Big Ten championship and a chance to play in the Final Four are to him.
"I've had some players (for whom) those were part of their goals and so they stayed to fulfill whatever their dreams and goals are," Izzo said. "But every kid's a little different on that.
"I think Payne can take another big step. If he makes the same steps he made between his sophomore and junior year, and stays healthy, that kid has a chance to hang his own banner in this building."
Because of his range as an athletic 6-foot-10 offensive force and defender, Izzo envisions Payne alternating between the power and small forward positions.
And, his supporting cast will be talented, experienced and, Izzo hopes, healthy, beginning with Dawson, "who had star status," Izzo said. "To go through what he did, it's hard to deal with. But it is what it is, it happened and guess what? He survived, we survived, and usually what that means is there are better things down the road and I really believe there will be."
Trice was one of MSU's best outside shooters and playmaking guards, and Izzo expects a big improvement once he regains the weight and strength he lost last summer.
"Trice still played 20 minutes a game even through that, and Dawson played 26-27 minutes a game through that," Izzo said. "I think you're going to see a big jump in those two guys."
Appling's season was remarkable in its own right given the way he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors while leading MSU in scoring (13.4) and assists (3.4) and was the team's best defender despite battling through a shooting slump and the shoulder injury.
"He made progress throughout the year in different ways but by the end of the year he was definitely shooting the ball so much better," Izzo said. "I think he has a better understanding of what it really takes to be a great player and so, I'm expecting him to make great strides."
Harris demonstrated uncommon toughness while keeping how much pain he was actually in to himself for the most part. "It speaks volumes for him," said Izzo. "Harris is just a flat-out talent."
Freshman forward Denzel Valentine became more effective as he cut down on turnovers. "He started 15 games, came off the bench and averaged quite a few minutes and was our fourth-leading scorer and second in assists," Izzo said. "He shows some leadership."
Byrd, who once had recruiters from Kentucky and Indiana knocking on his door because of his shooting prowess, was "probably the most frustrating guy of most fans of Michigan State," Izzo said.
He could be the most fascinating story of the off-season.
"I'm going out on a limb and saying that I still believe in the kid," Izzo said. "And as hard as we think it's been on us, it's been incredibly hard on him. I give him a chance because this will be the first true summer he's going to be 99-percent healthy. I have to listen to him talk to me about Twitter and how people are just ripping him on this and that. People have no clue, and no understanding.
"He was on the bubble, if you ask me. But when he sat in that locker room (after losing to Duke) and said something afterward, I said he's not on the bubble anymore. He's going to be driven to get it done. Will he? I don't know. But he said, `I promise you, this summer nobody can believe me, but I'm going to prove it.'"
"He had to fall in love with basketball," Izzo said. "I think that process has started. He shoots the ball well, he's very athletic up-and-down (the court). He's not as athletic (laterally) but that's something we're going to home in on this summer. Can things change in a year? Yeah, they can change in a year. You change what's important to you. What do you want to do?"
Costello, an exuberant freshman who missed the first two games because of a bruised tailbone, steadily improved throughout the season until he was playing valuable minutes down the stretch.
"I think with the work he's going to put in this summer, he's going to take a huge step," Izzo said.
Waiting in the wings is 6-8 freshman forward Kenny Kaminski, who redshirted this season while coming back from a shoulder injury sustained in high school.
"Kaminski might be as quick a shooter, as deep-range a shooter (as we've had)," Izzo said. "The question mark is always, who shoots good in practice, who shoots good in games? That has to be determined, but I've seen Kenny shoot like that in AAU tournaments and high school."
If Izzo can get Dame Fortune to work a little harder on the Spartans' behalf in the coming months, he'll have every reason to feel optimistic about his 19th season as head coach.
"We've had some adversity, but maybe we won't have that bad luck next year," Izzo said. "We're trying to address that right now, trying to make sure we get guys stronger in the right way, and doing what we can do to combat some of that.
"We could be better next year, and we could be a lot better if we get everyone healthy."