Stock Watch Big Ten: Michigan State has Final Four potential; Illinois not ready to contend
Over the next few weeks, One and One will highlight two teams from each conference -- one riding a positive trajectory heading into the 2013-14 season (stock up) and one headed for a decline (stock down). The unpredictability of college basketball could force a reassessment of these projections at some point over the next few months, but whether our analysis is prescient or misguided, watching the following teams perform in the upcoming season should be fascinating.
Stock up: Michigan State
If Michigan State does not reach the 2014 Final Four, two seniors -- point guard Keith Appling and forward Adreian Payne -- will finish their careers as the lone exceptions to one of the most impressive winning trends in recent college basketball history. Dating to Tom Izzo’s first season as Spartans’ head coach in 1995-96, no four-year player that exhausted his eligibility at Michigan State has failed to reach the national semifinals. Yeah, Izzo’s been that good. And come next April, it would be no surprise if the future Hall of Famer keeps his streak intact.
Michigan State is being touted as one of the top-three teams in the country and for good reason. The Spartans return four starters from the team that fell to Duke in last season’s Sweet 16, including Payne and sophomore guard Garry Harris, both of whom likely would have been first-round picks had they decided to enter the 2013 NBA draft. That they didn’t is a massive boot for Michigan State’s prospects this season, where Harris and Payne will be surrounded by a mix of skilled and athletic role players perfectly capable of providing the complementary production the Spartans need to stage a national championship run.
Sophomore guard Denzel Valentine, whose 22.3 percent assist rate last season was partially offset by a less-than-desirable 31.4 turnover rate (per Kenpom.com), would be a starter on most Big Ten teams. At Michigan State, he may wind up coming off the bench to complement Harris -- who earlier this month told ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman that he was “probably about 75 percent” after suffering an ankle injury this summer, but is fully recovered from the shoulder injuries that ailed him last season -- and Appling in the backcourt. Junior guard Travis Trice, when healthy and engaged, is a dangerous three-point threat who should join Valentine as one of Michigan State’s primary backcourt reserve options. Michigan State’s group of guards is arguably the Big Ten’s best, but if Appling can cut down on his turnovers and become more of a facilitator, there will be no doubt about the Spartans backcourt.
The frontcourt is nearly as imposing. Payne, who improved offensively during the second half of 2012-13, has All-Big Ten potential. Junior Branden Dawson, who often looked tentative last season after tearing his ACL in March 2012, is reportedly showing shades of his former, hyper-athletic, offensive rebound-devouring freshman self in practices. Sophomore Matt Costello, junior Alex Guana and redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski comprise a versatile forward reserve corps.
Nothing less than a Final Four will satisfy Spartans fans this season, nor is it likely to make Payne or Appling very happy. Of course, they have some control over that. Izzo’s streak is on the line, and the two seniors will play big roles in making sure it doesn’t come to an end this postseason.
Stock down: Illinois
New coaches are often forced to undertake big rebuilding projects in their first season at a new school. For second-year Illinois coach John Groce, the rebuilding might come one year later.
Last season’s veteran Illini team raced out to a 12-0 start, cracked the top-10 of the AP Poll, knocked off No. 8 Ohio State and No. 1 Indiana in Big Ten play and won an NCAA tournament game over 10-seed Colorado. That team, as the Buffaloes can likely attest, was one no one would have wanted to face in a single-elimination game in March. This year’s Illini may not even qualify for the field of 68.
All but three major contributors from 2012-13 left in the offseason, leading scorers Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson among them. What’s left is a talented but young group led by junior point guard Tracy Abrams, who must become a more efficient scorer -- his 96.5 offensive rating ranked sixth among Illini players who used at least 16 percent of available possessions last season, according to Kenpom -- for Illinois to even approach the 1.08 point-per possession offensive output (per Kenpom) it produced last season. Junior Nnanna Egwu and senior Joseph Bertrand are the Illini’s two other returning veterans of note, and both should log significant minutes in the frontcourt.
Perhaps more important than returning upperclassmen, however, are the new players Illinois brings in this season. Top-100 shooting guards Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, part of a 2013 recruiting class ranked 18th in the country by Rivals, should see time in the backcourt, while Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice, a second-team All-Missouri Valley selection in 2012, could be one of the Illini’s primary scoring threats. Graduate transfer Jon Ekey, who averaged 6.4 points and 4.2 rebounds while making just under 35 percent of his three-point shots at Illinois State in 2012-13, is eligible to play this season and should push Bertrand and Egwu for minutes in the frontcourt. Unfortunately for the Illini, Oregon State transfer Ahmad Stark’s petition for a hardship waiver, which would have allowed him to play this season, was denied by the NCAA, so he won’t be eligible until 2014-15. Even without Starks, Groce has managed to assemble a talented, if not seasoned roster, that should make things difficult for Big Ten opponents on a nightly basis. But it might take a year or two, once the Illini’s loaded 2014 recruiting class settles in, before Illinois can compete with the top teams in the Big Ten. This should be a textbook transition year for Groce, but there’s no reason for Illini fans to put their heads down. A year from now, Illinois could well be on the positive side of the Big Ten’s stock watch evaluation.