No matter your source for preseason polling -- here's one at CBS, here's another at Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, and here's yet another at Lindy's -- the nearly unanimous top three are the Kentucky Wildcats, Louisville Cardinals and Michigan State Spartans. In the Blue Ribbon and Lindy's preseason polls linked above, Michigan State has the top ranking, and it's easy to rationalize that decision.
The Spartans return four starters from last year's team, which tied for second in the Big Ten and lost to the conference tournament champion Ohio State Buckeyes in the semifinals. Michigan State won two NCAA tournament games as a No. 3 seed before a 71-61 loss to the Duke Blue Devils sent the Spartans home in the Sweet 16. Along with returning starters Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, two of the three bench players to average more than 10 minutes per game last season also return -- part-time starter Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice. Brandan Kearney, a sophomore last season, transferred to the Arizona State Sun Devils.
With six men returning from an eight-man rotation last year, the preseason polls have good reason to be high on Michigan State.
Gary Harris, So.: The shooting guard from Fishers, Ind., was excellent in his first collegiate season last year, shooting 45.6 percent from the floor and an impressive 65-of-158 (41.1 percent) from three-point range; all that was good enough to earn him Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Harris isn't one to drive to the basket and create contact, but he shoots well enough and creates enough clean opportunities to score plenty of points regardless. A preseason ankle sprain made him miss about five weeks, but he's just about ready to go, ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman reported.
Keith Appling, Sr.: One complaint of Appling -- complaint may be a strong word -- from head coach Tom Izzo was that his assist-to-turnover ratio was worse as a junior last year than it was as a sophomore, and that was because of fewer assists, Izzo told Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy. But Izzo also said Appling has been a different player in practice this season, as demonstrated by his newfound work ethic in the film room and commitment to passing in practices so far this fall.
Denzel Valentine, So.: Valentine averaged 5 points per game last year as a part-time starter for the Spartans, filling in at times for Harris, Payne or Derrick Nix, depending on what kind of lineup Izzo wanted. Either way, Valentine is a versatile 6'5 that isn't a great scorer -- he certainly isn't an outside shooter -- but makes his way defending multiple positions and rebounding. So, he's about like what seems like every guard ever to play for Izzo.
Travis Trice, Jr.: This season is big for Trice, because it's his last before being the senior point guard on a 2014-15 team without Appling. Health has been a problem for Trice -- a scary offseason virus that gave him persistent headaches and drastic weight loss put a shadow over all of last season, according to Diamond Leung of MLive.com -- but he's been mostly effective when on the court. Shot selection is a problem for Trice, and that will play into how much relief he provides Appling this season.
Branden Dawson, Jr.: Dawson blew out his knee in Michigan State's final regular-season game as a freshman in 2010-11, but he somehow played in all 36 games last season. He was as impressive last season defensively, but his offensive efficiency struggled. As KJ at The Only Colors wrote, his offensive efficiency in just about every major category dipped last season. But he's a great athlete who has had a full offseason to train instead of rehab, and that should pay off for him this season.
Adreian Payne, Sr.: One could argue Payne is the most important returning player to the Spartans, and it wouldn't be a hollow argument. Payne broke out in the second half of last season, filling out both offensively and helping fill the void that Draymond Green left defensively (particularly on the glass). He emerged as a versatile offensive threat who can even occasionally step out and hit a three -- not as a major weapon, but more as something he can keep in his back pocket and burn you if you aren't thinking about it. His 54.6 field-goal percent led Michigan State last season, and he also led the team with an 84.8 free-throw percentage.
Gavin Schilling, Fr.: The 6'9 German-born freshman spent three weeks overseas last summer training with Holger Geshwinder, a mentor and coach of Dirk Nowitzki, according to Diamond Leung of MLive.com. And apparently, the sessions paid off for Schilling; his improvement as a senior last season at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas is what ultimately landed him at Michigan State. He can play either forward position, and he averaged 13.9 points and 9 rebounds per game as a high-school senior.
Kenny Kaminski, Fr.: Kaminski redshirted last season while recovering from shoulder surgery, but the 6'7 forward is ready to go for 2013. His ability to come off the bench and hit shots will determine his role with this team, Diamond Leung of MLive.com reported, as will his ability to defend. He's already a proven shooter, but the defense is still unknown.
Matt Costello, So.: Costello isn't a true center in terms of size (and neither is Alex Gauna), but both will be playing the five this season with Payne in the power-forward slot. Costello, though, does typify a center despite his size disadvantage. He played about six minutes per game as a freshman, backing up Derrick Nix from a considerable distance. He was fourth on the team in blocks despite his severe playing-time handicap, and he's a solid, true defender in the post. The biggest thing to watch with him will be foul trouble, which somehow plagued him despite limited playing time as a freshman.
Alex Gauna, Jr.: Gauna was also buried fairly deep on the bench last season, and he's also closer to a power forward than a center. But the five is where the minutes are available in Nix's graduation, so he'll expect to get minutes alongisde Payne instead of strictly in place of Payne. KJ at The Only Colors isn't too optimistic on Gauna's prospects to get minutes in front of Costello and Schilling, but Gauna's continued development and ability to stay out of foul trouble could go a long way toward gaining minutes as a junior.