Spartans title contenders in 2014

Without Adreian Payne, next year’s Michigan State team would’ve struggled to get as far as the Sweet 16 round it reached this season.

With Payne, the sky’s is the limit.

Payne on Sunday opted to return for his senior season, hours before the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NBA Draft. Coupled with shooting guard Gary Harris’ earlier decision against being a one-and-done, the Spartans are a team with definite Final Four possibilities.

Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis ranked Michigan State No. 2 behind Kentucky in previewing the 2013-14 season after the NCAA tournament, adding that if “Adreian Payne comes back, the Spartans will make a title run.”

MSU loses one starter, center Derrick Nix, and super-recruit Jabari Parker to Duke. But the Spartans will return two quality players — point guard Keith Appling and small forward Branden Dawson — as well as two players who likely would’ve been first-round picks in Payne and Harris.

Every four-year player signed by Tom Izzo since he became head coach in 1995-96 has made at least one trip to the Final Four. Payne and Appling are motivated to avoid being the first voids in that regard.

“That’s very important,” Payne said. “I think we’re very motivated, Keith and I, to lead the team to a Final Four and a national championship. I think we have a great team; we have the pieces.

“I’m very excited for next year. We have a chance to have a great season with championship goals. Coach Izzo and I had several discussions about an expanded role for me that will help the team become better.

“Coach Izzo also talked about some of the individual goals he has for me, and I’m going to keep working hard to get better. I want to make my final season a special one.”

Payne, a 6-foot-10 power forward who also plays center, was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season. He came on strong down the stretch, getting six of his nine double-doubles in the final 11 games.

He averaged 10.5 points and a team-high 7.6 rebounds, while leading the Big Ten with a .848 free-throw shooting percentage. His 113 blocks are third all-time for the Spartans.

Payne has a 7-foot-4 wingspan and a 38-inch, no-step vertical leap that is the best of any player in Izzo’s 18 seasons.

“The feedback from the NBA was somewhat varied,” Izzo said, “but most people believed Adreian would be a first-round pick.

“But they also said that Adreian was in a position where he could raise his draft stock with a good senior season. That isn’t always the case with underclassmen, but the general consensus with Adreian was that he had a higher ceiling and was on an upward trend.”

Harris also decided to stay after investigating his lottery pick possibilities. He averaged 12.9 points, and only Magic Johnson (17.0) and school all-time scoring leader Shawn Respert (15.8) averaged more as freshmen at MSU.

“Playing in the NBA is definitely a goal of mine and something that I’ve always dreamed of,” Harris said after deciding to stay. “But those dreams can wait for another day.

“I think additional experience and maturity will be huge in my development as a player. I have other dreams of things I want to accomplish, both as a player and as a team at Michigan State.

“My teammates and I are already excited thinking about next season. I’ve been doing a lot of rehab on my shoulder and it feels stronger already.”

Harris had both shoulders pop out during the season but missed only two games. He opted against corrective surgery.

Matt Costello, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2012, struggled to make an impact as a freshman; however, he got into the flow of games in the postseason and is expected to replace Nix at center.

The Spartans also return a pair of dependable guards off the bench — Travis Trice and Denzel Washington — and improved depth by signing guard Alvin Ellis III (6-4, 190 pounds) of Chicago De La Salle and Gavin Schilling (6-9, 240) of Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev.

Payne is the key because he’s a difference-maker in the frontcourt. His return wasn’t anticipated, though.

“I was pleasantly surprised, if you want the truth” Izzo said.

Payne’s decision made Izzo and the Spartans joyous.

Payne noted that Mary Lewis — the grandmother who raised him in Dayton, Ohio, and died two years ago — also has to be pleased.

“I know Grandma Mary is proud of me,” Payne said. “She wanted me to get my degree, and I made a promise to her that I would do that.

“I know she’s in heaven right now looking down on me and smiling.”