Tom Izzo is usually fairly realistic. Michigan State's head coach doesn't mince words, and if he doesn't like his team or has questions, he'll have no qualms talking about them. Izzo is optimistic about this year's team -- even after losing one of the nation's most productive all-around players in Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.6 rig, 3.8 apg).
He's got junior Keith Appling back in the fold with a year under his belt at the point, welcomes in one of the top freshmen in the country in wing Gary Harris and could field a frontline of Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix.
But the guy he's raving about right now is unheralded freshman Denzel Valentine.
"He's 6-foot-6, handles it, shoots it, can rebound and do just about everything," Izzo said. "His biggest asset is he understands the game."
Sounds a little like Green.
"He's more of a guard than Draymond," Izzo said.
Izzo has flexibility with his lineup, but it sure looks as though he will trot out a starting lineup of Appling, Harris, Dawson, Payne and Nix. All were considered Top 50 players coming out of high school except for Nix, a senior who has developed into a solid post player.
Payne, who Izzo said has gained 15 pounds, could be the key.
"He's had a heck of a summer so far," Izzo said. "He hasn't been good; he's been great."
Payne has phenomenal physical tools, with the size, athleticism and skill level at his size (6-10, 250) to be a nightmare for opposing power forwards. His biggest issue has been the mental aspect of the game, but with the departure of Green, the Spartans need the light to come on and for him to start to realize the potential that so many have talked about since high school.
Izzo said that Dawson is progressing well from the knee injury suffered the final game of the regular season. Dawson is running and is hopeful of being cleared for contact in the next month or so.
But the concern is who fills the leadership void left by Green's departure to the NBA.
"That's the question," Izzo admitted. "I think we have more talent and are deeper, but leadership is hands-down our biggest issue going into the season."