As the first #1 seed to bow out of the NCAA tournament, the Michigan State Spartans can only look at all the improvements they made this season and see success.
The team finished with the number one SOS, 12 top-50 RPI wins, 16 top-100 RPI wins and 12 road/neutral wins in the nation’s top conference. They went from being unranked at the beginning of the season to earning a top seed in the post-season—if that’s not the true mark of improvement, then what is?
The team, though, can add a chunk of this success to the great leadership of stellar senior Draymond Green. While ten Spartan greats–Magic Johnson, Shawn Respert, Mateen Cleaves, Johnny Green, Greg Kesler, Jay Vincent, Scott Skiles, Steve Smith and Morris Peterson—see their names in the Breslin Center’s rafters, Draymond could (and most likely) will be the eleventh member in Spartan history to have his jersey retired.
It’s fitting because he was the heart and soul of this impressive Spartan team this season.
Draymond Green was one of four players under Tom Izzo to win Big Ten Player of the Year (former recipients include Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Kalin Lucas). Green became the first player from a power 6 conference since Tim Duncan to average 15 points, 10 boards and 3 assists, and in the Spartans loss to Louisville, Green became MSU’s leading rebounder, passing Greg Kessler.
It’s without question, Green’s impact was tremendous for the team.
The one facet of Green’s game that the Spartans will miss most next year will be one that doesn’t have a physical column on the stat sheet—a remarkable presence as a leader. Izzo has praised Green time and time again and held him in high esteem with these other Spartan greats from the past.
In fact, Izzo was even quoted as saying that Green was one of the top two or three leaders he’s ever coached. When you get a compliment like that from Izzo, it’s likely warranted, and the accolades Green’s received (and still could receive with the Naismith Trophy voting still up for gabs) are too.
Green was named a first-team All-America by the Sporting News, United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA), the Wooden Award, cbsports.com and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). Green’s Wooden All-American Award is MSU’s first since 2001 when Charlie Bell was named to the team and makes him the eighth Spartan in school history to receive the honor.
Green was also the fourth Spartan selected to the Associated Press’ All-America first team, joining the likes of Magic Johnson, Shawn Respert and Mateen Cleaves. Green bruised himself through an extremely physical Big Ten Conference where injuries were badges of honor (Green sprained his knee in the team’s loss to Illinois and played the rest of the season in a brace).
But maybe the reason Izzo praised Green so much on this intangible quality is because like Spartans great Mateen Cleaves, Green was an extension of his coach. With Cleaves and Izzo, the bond was strong—Izzo’s son is even named after Cleaves (Steven Mateen).
Like Cleaves, Green is fiery and stubborn yet just as energetic in pumping up these Spartan troops. He lead with tough love over a young Spartan squad yet supported and often called his teammates his “brothers.” Even future Spartans, like McDonald All-American Gary Harris, have already been welcomed with open arms into the green and white basketball family and circle that Green has led these past two years.
And Green was a true hero because he committed full-heartedly. He stayed for four years, went to two Final Fours and became the catalyst that turned a deflated team from last season (that suffered a collapse and disappointing first round tourney loss to UCLA) and an unranked team at the start of this season to a number one seed, Big Ten conference and tournament champion.
On the next level, Green is an intriguing prospect. Signed with agents Ron Shade and Herb Rudoy, the Spartan standout is projected by some analysts as a late first-rounder. Because he isn’t penciled in at any one specific position, the advantages he brings to certain teams are intriguing.
Despite all of that, the Spartans have a chance to rebound. With incoming McDonald All-American Gary Harris, the return of Branden Dawson and Keith Appling maturing with another year of experience under his belt, this team has the potential to make a bit of noise.
In the McDonald’s All-American game, other players even complimented Harris’s offensive skill set and said that the guard should fit in nicely with the Spartan offense.
Appling will have to be the leader, and that may be the biggest challenge of all. As the designated and converted floor general at the point for most of this year, Appling’s lighting quick speed was fun to watch (especially in the team’s multiple heavyweight bouts with the Buckeyes and their tremendous point guard Aaron Craft) but he will have to step up.
In Izzo’s eyes, though, the most likely candidate for this top spot is center Derrick Nix. After the team’s loss to Lousiville, Nix even gave a speech to the downed Spartan squad, a move that most likely resembles a Draymond-esque quality.
Like Green, Nix has trimmed down his body and is on the path to becoming a better player for this Spartan team. His handy hook shots and football player body down low capitalized the role of strength and physicality that an Izzo team usually displays. But Nix isn’t satisfied. He was quoted in the Detroit Free-Press with saying he wants to drop about 15 more pounds off his frame and improve his jump shot and conditioning.
His fellow big man, Adreian Payne, also wants to get more minutes and that means getting in better shape, and playing this twosome at the same time is a goal that Coach Izzo hopes to accomplish. The possibility of Payne at the power forward “stretch-four” spot, Nix cleaning up boards and Branden Dawson returning with hopefully the same explosive nature he demonstrated this season could put the Spartans in great shape to have a top frontline. For this to happen, Nix and Payne will need to become the team’s two most improved players and hit the off-season hard.
Adreian Payne (a Winter Academic All-Big Ten Selection) will also need to use his off the court smarts more often next season. The big man’s indecisive play often was his biggest crutch this season. On nights when he was hot (in the team’s game against the Buckeyes on the road Payne was a monster), Payne’s presence in the post was crucial for the Spartans success. In the team’s Sweet Sixteen matchup, Payne was irrelevant with only four points on 1-for-4 shooting. After the team’s loss Trice noted that the team’s shooting woes were in part created from the lack of offense in the post. Making split-second decisions down low was not a strength of the 6’10 big man, and he noted that this facet of his game will need to change next season. Payne also noted that getting stronger so that he can challenge players like OSU’s Jared Sullinger will be a key component to his off-season.
Bulking up is in the agenda, but not just for Payne but for rising sophomore Travis Trice. While Trice battled injuries throughout the season, adding more pounds to his frame will help him get a competitive edge and prevent the wear and tear that Big Ten play causes. Trice will play a bigger and more crucial role for the Spartans next season and may help alleviate point guard duties from the still-learning Keith Appling.
But one of the most encouraging elements from this past season was the role of chemistry in creating a team that, on paper, was average. But when these Spartan “brothers” played together, they exceeded everyone’s expectations, and in the right way. Izzo was quoted in the Detroit Free Press by saying that this team was special and “ ‘reassured me that there is one way to do it. They reassured me that chemistry and leadership and toughness is important.’” What will be important is whether or not this same type of chemistry will be present next season. While the team will greatly miss transfer Brandon Wood (who got hot in the Louisville game when no one else was), former walk-on Austin Thornton and Green, four new faces—Michigan’s Mr. Basketball and big man Matt Costello, Kenny Kaminski, shooting guard McDonald’s All-American Gary Harris and point-forwad Denzel Valentine–will come to East Lansing with a chance to keep the Spartans’ tournament appearance streak alive
To help foster this new team chemistry, Izzo has noted that he would like to do a foreign exhibition tour with his young squad late in the summer to help aid in planting the early roots of cohesion in the team’s game. The “brotherly love” that was exhibited this season from the current underclassmen will help the squad build a new bond even faster. When freshman Branden Dawson went down with an ACL injury, all of the Spartan players tweeted that they were bringing home the conference tourney trophy for him. For the first time in what seems like a few years, this team was really playing as a selfless group and for each other in a way that many Spartans fans have not seen in a while.
With the past troubles from players that eventually transferred or were released from the team, MSU did not have to deal with any toxic players or storylines this season, and it really helped in their success.