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Top 25 Countdown: No. 12 Michigan State Spartans

Oct 18, 2012, 9:00 AM EST

Will Sheehey, Branden Dawson

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-8, 13-5 Big Ten (t-1st); Lost in the Sweet 16 to Louisville

Head Coach: Tom Izzo

Key Losses: Draymond Green, Brandon Wood, Austin Thornton

Newcomers: Gary Harris, Matt Costello, Denzel Valentine, Kenny Kaminski

Projected Lineup:

- G: Keith Appling, Jr.
G: Gary Harris, Fr.
F: Branden Dawson, So.
F: Derrick Nix, Sr.
C: Adreian Payne, Jr.
Bench: Travis Trice, So.; Alex Gauna, So.; Matt Costello, Fr.; Brandon Kearney, So.; Russell Byrd, So.; Denzel Valentive, Fr.

Outlook: Michigan State entered the 2010-2011 season with all kinds of hype and produced one of the most disappointing seasons in Spartan history. They finished 19-15 on the year, 9-9 in league play and somehow managed to squeeze an NCAA tournament bid out of it. After some significant roster turnover heading into last season, the Spartans weren’t expected to be much more than mediocre … and they went out and won a share of the Big Ten regular season title (after blowing a two game lead with two games left), the Big Ten tournament title and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (Hurray, accurate preseason projections!)

And this season?

Well, expectations are kind of in the middle. The Spartans are expected to be a contender in the Big Ten, but they aren’t a favorite. Indiana is. It’s tough to even label them a contender for the title with Michigan and Ohio State in the conference as well. They’re also a borderline top ten team, as their ranking in this poll will show you, but they aren’t really talked about as a Final Four contender beyond the obvious “never bet against Izzo” tourney-meme.

The one thing we do know about this group is that they have the kind of makeup that Izzo usually has success with.

It starts in the front court, where the Spartans will be as big and physical as anyone. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix spent last season rotating at the center spot, playing along side Draymond Green, but with Green off to the professional ranks, Izzo’s two biggest big men will see a lot of shared court time. Payne and Nix are complete contrasts on the court. Where Payne has length and athleticism for days, Nix is a bully on the block that’s strong as an ox but struggles to keep his weight down.

Joining them up front is sophomore Branden Dawson, who was having an excellent freshman season before he tore his ACL in March. The good news? Dawson has recovered incredibly quickly from the surgery and should be back to his old form, which is good news for this group. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Dawson is aggressive when attacking the basket — and the back boards — and will give Izzo a trio of tough, physical front court players. Exactly like the Tom Izzo teams of old. Sophomore Alex Gauna and freshman Matt Costello will round out the front court rotation, although Dawson might also be able to slide over and play the four spot if necessary.

The back court is where the question marks will lie. As well as that front court trio fits in with what classic Michigan State teams look like, the key centers around the ability of the back court to score, because offensive creativity is not exactly a strong suit for that group.

The most important player will be Keith Appling. Appling is more of a natural scoring guard, but he was forced to move into the point guard role last season due to the dismissal of Korie Lucious. It took him awhile to get adjusted to the position, but with a year under his belt, the Spartans are expecting big things out of him. Expect his scoring numbers (11.9 ppg last season) to increase, while his assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7:1) improves and his three-point shooting (25.0% last year, versus 41.0% as a freshman) both improve. Appling’s load will be lessened by Travis Trice, a sophomore point guard that was a pleasant surprise last year. He battled a pretty vicious virus over the summer, however, which caused him to lose some weight and conditioning.

Freshman Gary Harris could end up being this team’s x-factor. A five-star recruit, Harris is an athletic, 6-foot-4 slasher known for his aggressiveness, his ability to score off the dribble and his defensive aggressiveness. If he can prove to be a consistent scorer from the perimeter, a guy that can compete for all-league honors, Michigan State could have some real upside this season. Sophomore Brandan Kearney and freshman Denzel Valentine are bigger, more versatile guards, while Russell Byrd is a 6-foot-7 shooter whose recurring foot issues may end up forcing him into a limited role.

Predictions?: Best case scenario? Assuming Appling and Harris excel in the back court, Dawson is fully recovered from his injury and more advanced offensively, and Nix and Payne have learned how to play together on the front line, Michigan State has the makings of a team that can make noise in the league and a run in the tournament. But those are a lot of ‘ifs’ that need to work out well. There’s no guarantee that happens. Whether or not it does, the Spartans are going to play a tough, physical brand of basketball and compete every night. A top four finish in the Big Ten sounds about right.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.