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MSU-UM: Spartans Rising At The Right Time

Scary MSU is always improving

Gregory Shamus

Our resident Spartan returns to remind you that MSU is only getting better as the season goes on. My thanks to Nolan for his contribution. Isn't it crazy that MSU went from unranked and possible B1G favorite and 1 seed? - graham

For many Michigan State fans, the biggest loss of the 2012-13 season occurred on the afternoon of December 20. No need to check the schedule, MSU didn't have a game that day. In fact, the loss had nothing to do with the Spartans' record. 12/20/12 was supposed to be the day when MSU landed Jabari Parker, the biggest recruit to come to East Lansing since Magic Johnson. Instead, it was a day of disappointment as Parker announced he'd play at Duke. The news was deflating. Particularly considering Izzo had gone all in, having no other undecided 2013 recruits with a scholarship offer at the time of Parker's decision.

Despite this major disappointment, expectations in East Lansing should be that this season is only a stepping-stone for even greater success next year. And yes, I know as I write this MSU is tied with Indiana atop the Big Ten standings, ranked #8 in the country and hosting Michigan tonight with an opportunity to hand their rival its 4th loss in league play. Michigan State also hosts the Hoosiers next week at the Breslin Center with a chance to stand alone in first place. And while these two wins would put the Spartans in the driver's seat, losing either game still does not end the Spartans' quest for their fourth B1G title in five years nor does it inhibit Tom Izzo from making another legendary March run to the Final Four.

So why is 2014 the Spartans' year when so much is right in front of them now? The answer is the roster. The Spartans return 10 of 11 scholarship players including 6 of their top 7 scorers, 5 of their top 6 rebounders and top 4 passers. In fact the only player graduating is Derrick Nix, who will take with him a productive but replaceable 9.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per contest. And while progress has been slow for Alex Gauna and Matt Costello, the men replacing Nix next year, it has become an Izzo theme for big guys to take major strides in their second or third year in the program (think National Champion A.J. Granger, MSU all time shot block leader Drew Naymick, NBA draft pick Goran Suton and Nix, himself).

Even more important is the exponential growth of the four returning starters Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Each has made huge strides since November. Appling has assumed a leadership role and become the team's closer in nearly every tight conference game to date. His shooting has also greatly improved, making over 50% of his three-pointers (11 for 21) in his last five games. Appling has been so impressive that Izzo recently named him a captain in the middle of the season. In fact, he has become the best point guard in the B1G excluding Trey Burke. Meanwhile Harris, Payne and Dawson have improved as well. The three have steadily increased their scoring and are now all averaging double digits in conference play. Additionally, Denzel Valentine appears to have fought through what Izzo described as a "freshman wall" and become an important and productive 6th man over the Spartans' last three contests.

Obviously, this is all subject to change if one or more of the above-mentioned players decide to leave early for professional basketball. But, at this point, no Spartans are projected first round picks and early departures are much less likely than in other B1G programs (Cody Zellar, Trey Burke, DeShaun Thomas). If everyone returns, 2014 should be one of Izzo's most talented and proven rosters. My prediction is that MSU wins in a tight one tonight as well as next week against Indiana, poising itself for at least a share of the conference championship. Win or lose, however, Spartan optimism should not fade as 2013 is only a building block to next year, which should be one of Izzo's finest in East Lansing.