How good are they? How far can they go? Those questions will remain unanswered for a couple of months. Nevertheless, there are some preseason questions that presently appear to be answered:
1. The point guard position is solidified:
Senior Chris Hill and Freshman Drew Neitzel have both set a position that had been in flux since the departure of Charlie Bell back in 2000. At present, Hill is playing the best basketball of his career. He currently has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 46-to-14, has shot .462 from the field, .459 from behind-the-arc, and has a team-leading 19 steals while averaging 25.6 minutes a game.
Neitzel has shown improvement in every game and has provided a flashy change of pace to the quietly steady Hill. While shooting only a combined 33% from the field, he has also protected the rock with a turnover-to-assist ratio of 32-17.
Both of these players will need to continue on their current path if Michigan State is to challenge for the Big Ten crown; however for the first time in a while it looks like the Spartans have two guys capable of carrying the load at that position.
2. Matt Trannon is a true sparkplug:
Spartan footballer Trannon has brought the element of inside toughness that Tom Izzo loves over from the Duffy Daugherty building. He has especially given the team big boost on the boards. That, in turn, has taken some of the pressure off of Center Paul Davis. In just 22 minutes of action over his first three games, Trannon has grabbed 13 rebounds (4.3 avg.). Once he gets into his basketball comfort zone, Trannon could be a pivotal role-player down the stretch for the Spartans by giving them an inside complement to Davis that at times was sorely lacking last season.
3. Balanced scoring and production at the free throw line:
Often over the past couple of years, Michigan State found itself in long stretches where they couldn't find the basket. So far this season, that hasn't been a problem. They are getting steady contributions from a number of players. Below are the numbers for the six Spartans who are averaging double figures this season.
POINTS AVERAGE GP Pts Avg/G
Maurice Ager 10 140 14.0
Paul Davis 10 132 13.2
Alan Anderson 10 123 12.3
Shannon Brown 10 118 11.8
Kelvin Torbert 10 113 11.3
Chris Hill 10 109 10.9
In addition, as a team, they are shooting a combined .795 (178-224) from the charity stripe. Continued production in both areas will be key components in determining how far Michigan State will go in the conference and in the tournament come March.
4. Protecting the basketball and cleaning the glass:
While the aforementioned point-guard play has been strong. The entire team has also done a good job in limiting turnovers. As a team, the Spartans are averaging 7 more assists-per-game than their opponents and 3.1 fewer turnovers-per-game.
The Spartans have also continued their longstanding edge on the boards. They are currently +7.6 in that category against the opposition, with Paul Davis (6.9 RPG) leading the way. If Delco Rowley, Drew Naymick and Matt Trannon can continue to improve on their performances of late, the Spartan inside game should be more than capable come tournament time.
5. Kelvin Torbert is a great sixth-man:
In many ways, it is fitting to see the much-maligned Torbert appear to have finally found his niche as this team's Morris Peterson. The Flint-native has done a marvelous job as the team's first substitute this season. Currently, Kelvin is shooting .563 from the field (40-71), .444 from 3-point range (12-27) and .875 (24-27) from the free-throw line while averaging 21.9 minutes-per-game.
Most important of all, in accepting his role as sixth-man, he is showing everyone the importance of winning over personal glory. His leadership in that area has carried over to the entire team.
The Current Overview:
The Spartans have been balanced across the board this season. At times (versus UCLA) they have looked great, while at other times (most notably against George Washington) they have looked like the struggling team of recent years. However, with the Senior foursome of Hill, Torbert, Alan Anderson and Tim Bograkos yet to earn a Big Ten title, this team's hunger for a Conference Championship remains a top priority.
This group is certainly capable of completing that task. To do so however, they will likely to need to win a big game on the road. Back on December 30, 1997, the Spartans did just that when they went down to West Lafayette and knocked off the then-defending Big Ten Champion Purdue Boilermakers, 74-57.
That road victory against Gene Keady's squad eight-years ago was a springboard for the rest of 1997-98 campaign that ended with a Sweet Sixteen loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. After that season the Spartans went to three-straight Final Fours, winning a National Championship in 2000 along the way. Many observers point to that long ago victory at Purdue as the game that put Michigan State basketball back on the national map.
The first chance for this year's Michigan State squad to score their own road springboard will come on January 16, in Madison, versus their current nemesis – Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers.
This season's Spartan squad has as much talent as anyone in the Big Ten. However, with powerful and battle-tested squads like Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin standing in their path; it remains to be seen if they can muster the consistency and toughness that will be needed to claim their own special place in Michigan State history book.