Posted: Wednesday December 7, 2011 1:03PM ; Updated: Wednesday December 7, 2011 1:03PM
Seth Davis

Syracuse's strength, Boatright's shortcomings, more (Cont.)

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Michigan State's Keith Appling continues to look uncomfortable as a point guard.
Michigan State's Keith Appling continues to look uncomfortable as a point guard.

I am a huge Tom Izzo fan and understand that he has a young team. The tough schedule should help them in the Big Ten games. Does he have enough talent to make it to the dance? Or should we wait until next year?

Craig Becker, Cave Creek, Ariz.

First of all, let me compliment Craig on his reasonable expectations. I'm sure most Michigan State fans have higher aspirations than simply making the NCAA tournament. So to answer the question, yes, I do believe this is an NCAA tournament team. But I would recommend that Spartans fans follow Craig's lead and keep their expectations modest.

I actually ranked the Spartans 19th on my AP ballot this week, but my fellow voters left them unranked. I have two overriding concerns about them right now. The first is the point guard situation. Keith Appling is manning the position out of necessity because of Korie Lucious's dismissal last year, but Appling still doesn't look comfortable in the role. (Though he did score a career-high 24 points in the win over Florida State.) As I've said before, the best case scenario for Michigan State would be to have freshman Travis Trice, who unlike Appling is a natural point guard, develop into starter.

My second concern surrounds sophomore center Adreian Payne. He had a lot of shoulder problems during the summer before his freshman year which hindered his development, but it's clear he is a long way from being a dependable post scorer. Payne always seems a half-step behind the action on both ends of the floor. If the Spartans are going to pull one of their trademark March surprises, they'll need more from their man in the middle.

Aaron Craft may be the best point guard in the nation, but Scott Machado from Iona College (my alma mater) must be mentioned in the same discussion. The MAAC may not be the Big Ten, but his stats are better than Craft's in every major category.

Neil Brady, Carrollton, Texas

I have no problem with anyone claiming that Machado, Iona's 6-1, 180-pound senior, is the best point guard in America. (As I noted in my Hoop Thoughts column, ESPN's Doug Gottlieb, who watches as much video as anyone, has argued just that.) Machado and Craft actually have similar games. Machado is a little bigger and stronger, but he's not a blazing athlete in the John Wall-Derrick Rose mold. Rather, Machado is strong, efficient and savvy, and he has worked hard to improve his long-range shooting (39.1 percent from three, up from 32,0 percent as a junior).

Still, if I could have one point guard in America running my college team this evening, it would be Craft. Offensively, he is at least comparable to Machado, Kendall Marshall, Jordan Taylor et al. But I don't think any other point guard compares to Craft when it comes to playing defense. It's not just his steals (which number 4.1 per 40 minutes, compared to Machado's 2.5), but as my colleague Luke Winn has pointed out, Craft is extremely effective at forcing opposing ballhandlers into situations where his teammates can get steals as well. Some defenders are great on the ball while others excel at attacking the passing lanes. Craft is the rare example of someone who is great at both.

Finally, I know that any time I do a "list" column, I'm going to get a few incredulous e-mails pointing out that I forgot so-and-so. That was the case with this week's column featuring my 10 breakout sophomores. Here are a few extra assessments requested by my fellow Hoop Thinkers:

Deshaun Thomas, 6-7 forward, Ohio State

(Suggested by Jason Sesco, Columbus, Ohio)

Fr: 14.0 mins, 7.5 pts, 3.5 rebs, 32.8% fg

Soph: 25.1 mins, 12.9 pts, 4.0 rebs, 29.2% 3fg

Thomas only narrowly missed out on being included. The two things that gave me pause were his declining three-point shooting and the fact that his rebound average only jumped seven percent even though he is playing 64 percent more minutes. Still, Thomas is emerging as a dependable commodity for the Buckeyes. He showed in the Duke game (18 points on 8 for 12 shooting) that when he is a factor on offense, the Buckeyes are nearly impossible to defend.

Russ Smith, 6-foot guard, Louisville

(Justin Flanagan, New York City)

Fr: 5.6 mins, 2.2 pts, 0.8 assts, 34.1% fg

Soph: 18.4 mins, 6.4 pts, 2.0 assts, 29.6% fg

I like Smith's moxie, but I would hardly consider him a breakout candidate. His increased minutes have largely resulted from injuries to Mike Marra, Peyton Siva, Wayne Blackshear and Elisha Justice. Marra won't return this season, but Siva is already back and the other two will return at some point. Smith will ably hold down the fort for a while, but I don't envision him becoming a major part of the Cardinals' rotation when they're at full strength.

Doron Lamb, 6-4 sophomore, Kentucky

(Dan Parker, Santa Barbara, CA)

Fr: 28.4 mins, 12.3 pts, 2.0 rebs, 1.6 assts, 48.6% 3fg

Soph: 30.4 mins, 14.4 pts, 4.1 rebs, 2.8 assts, 50.0% 3fg

I am a big Doron Lamb fan -- I could make a case that he is Kentucky's best player right now -- but as you can see his numbers are pretty much in line with where they were last season. You can't call him a breakout sophomore, but you can call him a great player on a great team.

Joe Harris, 6-6 guard, Virginia

(Don Burnette, Richmond, Va.)

Fr: 29.4 mins, 10.4 pts, 4.4 rebs, 1.3 assts, 41.8% fg, 75.9% ft

Soph: 29.2 mins, 12.4 pts, 3.8 rebs, 1.8 assts, 45.5% fg, 90.6% ft

There is basically no difference between Harris's numbers from his freshman to sophomore years, save for an impressive uptick in his foul shooting. He may not be a breakout candidate right now, but he's worth watching -- and so are the Cavs, who I think are going to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

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