No. 18 Michigan State opens campaign at Navy

Nov 14, 2014 - 4:32 PM Annapolis, MD ( - The 18th-ranked Michigan State Spartans are the first Big Ten Conference team in 83 years to play at Navy, as the teams open the 2014-15 season on Friday night as part of the Veterans Classic.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is set to embark on his 20th season in charge of the Spartans, who if they reach the 2015 NCAA Tournament will tie the Big Ten record for consecutive trips to the Big Dance with 18 (Indiana, 1986-2003). They went 29-9 last season, 12-6 in conference, and won their fourth Big Ten Tournament title last March.

How does Navy follow up a dismal season in which it went just 9-21 overall and 4-14 in the Patriot League? Why it schedules games against Michigan State, Notre Dame and Providence in the first week, that's how. The Midshipmen, under the direction of fourth-year head coach Ed DeChellis weren't terrible last season, but struggled to win close games, going 0-3 in overtime affairs, and lost nine games that they led at halftime.

Navy is 1-0 all-time against Michigan State, defeating the Spartans, 91-90, on November 29, 1986. In that game, Navy star David Robinson scored 43 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked four shots.

Izzo must find replacements for former stars Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, the trio accounting for 44.3 ppg last season, and while it may take a little while for the team to come together, there is no denying the wealth of talent the coach has at his disposal.

It starts with seniors Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, and junior Denzel Valentine, each of whom contributed to last season's stellar run. Dawson is the top returning scorer, as he hit 61.3 percent of his field goal attempts in netting 11.2 ppg, while also leading the club on the glass with 8.3 rpg. As for Valentine and Trice, they combined for 15.3 ppg, with the former also coming up with 6.0 caroms and 3.8 assists per contest. Matt Costello performs well at the defensive end (top-10 in the league in blocks in 2013-14), while ranking second on the team in field goal percentage (.598).

Of the 345 Division I teams last season, Navy finished 342nd in scoring (60.7 ppg) as it shot a woeful 40.1 percent (330th) from the floor. Even worse, the Midshipmen converted a mere 63.5 percent of their free throws, worst in the Patriot and 334th in the country.

Despite the return of five starters, Navy figures to be in a similar situation in 2014-15, even though Worth Smith (11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Brandon Venturini (11.5, 3.1 rpg) have a year of experience under their belts. The return of Tilman Dunbar (11.9 ppg, 5.0 apg), who was the team's top scorer and one of the assist leaders in the Patriot League before missing the final 20 games of last season, is critical, but not enough so that the Midshipmen make serious headway.

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