Top 64 Countdown: No. 8 Michigan State

Head coach: Tom Izzo
Last season: 23-12, 8-8 in Big Ten.
Postseason: Earned at-large bid to NCAA Tournament. Lost to North Carolina in second round, 81-67.
2007-08 breakdown: Probable starters | Backcourt | Frontcourt | Offense | Defense | Outlook

Backcourt

Drew Neitzel has managed to more than double his scoring average each of the past two years. No, he's not about to average 36.2 ppg this season, but he's a big-time scorer who carried the Spartans offensively at times last season. The luxury for Michigan State is that Tom Izzo has a deep and talented squad this season that is better equipped to help Neitzel on the offensive end. Either he won't need to take as many shots as he did last season (a whopping 467, second in the Big Ten), or he will take as many or more but shoot it better than the 41.2 percent of a year ago without so many defenders hanging on him. It's a win-win for the Spartans.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Drew Neitzel is the offensive star, but not the only scorer in East Lansing.

Probable Starting Five
G Drew Neitzel (18.1 ppg, 4.3 apg)
G Travis Walton (6.4 ppg, 5.5 apg)
C Goran Suton (9.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
F Raymar Morgan (11.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
F Marquise Gray (6.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
Top Reserves
C Drew Naymick (3.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
G Isaiah Dahlman (3.7 ppg)
F Idong Ibok (2.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg)
Travis Walton also returns. He was the lone Spartan to start all 35 games last season. He brings a wealth of experience, and he's one of the best on-ball defenders in the Big Ten. He led the Spartans in steals (ninth in the Big Ten), and he makes it difficult on the opposition to get into its offense. Walton also makes good decisions on the offensive end. He led MSU in assists, and he was third in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio. He's a perfect complement to Neitzel.

The Spartans bring in the nation's No. 14 recruiting class, and it includes four-star point guard Kalin Lucas and four-star shooting guard Chris Allen. Both were ranked among the top 40 prospects in the country by Rivals.com, and both will see time and provide a spark when they do.

The goal is to keep Neitzel at the 2-guard and not to need him to play 35-plus minutes a game like he did last season. Lucas, Allen and Isaiah Dahlman provide enough depth that Neitzel can rest a little.

Frontcourt

All three of last year's starters return, as well as the top two reserves. Few teams in the Big Ten can throw as many capable big bodies at you as the Spartans. The most capable is small forward Raymar Morgan, who was the Big Ten's best freshman last season who didn't go to Ohio State. He averaged 14.0 ppg over the final 10 games of the season vs. 11.7 for the entire season. He's explosive going to the basket, and he has a good mid-range game (48.6 percent from the field). He's not much of a threat from 3-point range (5-of-16 last season). Morgan should be a 14-15 ppg, 6-7 rpg player this season.

The center position is manned by Goran Suton and Drew Naymick, who bring different skill sets. Suton made 21 starts and was the team's leading rebounder (sixth in the Big Ten). He also is the better offensive player. He can step out and hit shots from 12 to 15 feet, and he has decent moves in the post. He ranked fifth in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (50.9 percent). Naymick is the better defender. He led the Spartans in blocks (fifth in the Big Ten).

Power forward Marquise Gray, who has been injury-plagued during his time in East Lansing, played in all 35 games last season - including 22 starts. He posted 6.8 points and 5.5 rebounds despite averaging just 18.7 minutes per game, and he shot 57.8 percent from the field (but didn't make enough field goals to qualify for the Big Ten rankings). Gray is an explosive player who will benefit greatly as the Spartans return to being more up-tempo this season.

Idong Ibok started 16 games last season. He also blocked 33 shots in just 10.3 minutes per game.

Offense

Izzo hated to slow the tempo as much as he felt he had to last season with a lack of depth. The Spartans struggled through some injury problems, and they were forced to use a horde of inexperienced players. Now they figure to turn up the tempo, run out and score in transition, and last year's fresh-faced newbies are this year's grizzled veterans. Izzo believes this team will get significantly more possessions per game and boost its sub-par scoring average (65 ppg; 242nd nationally).

Defense

Again, this team is deeper and more experienced than last year's. Expect MSU to pick up man-to-man from end line to end line and really pressure the ball.

Outlook with postseason forecast
Izzo has a gleam in his eye about this team. Looking at the roster, it has some nice pieces. Neitzel can score with anybody in the country. Izzo would like to see his star guard shoot just as much but take better shots and play fewer minutes. That's possible with the depth in the backcourt. Everyone fits a role. Walton is a distributor and a terrific defender. Lucas is a penetrator. Allen is a needed outside presence. There is quality depth up front, too. If the big men can make some strides from last season, this could be a Final Four team.

Shoes to Fill

None. Sixth-leading scorer Maurice Joseph transferred, but there is more than enough talent to make up for his 5.9 points and 1.7 rebounds per game.

Must Step Up

Marquise Gray. The Spartans know what they'll get from Neitzel and there isn't much question about Morgan, either. If Gray can play as he did in the NCAA Tournament (11.5 ppg, 6 rpg) and be a factor on a consistent basis, MSU will be that much more dangerous up front.

Impact Newcomer

Chris Allen. After Neitzel, the Spartans don't have a returning player who made more than 13 3-pointers last season, so there is a definite need for another shooter. Allen has impressed in summer workouts and open gym with his range. No less than NBA star Jason Richardson, back on campus for a few days and playing in some pickup games, complimented Allen's game.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 64. Coming tomorrow: No. 7.


 

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