Preview: Spartan surprise?
Tom Izzo’s optimism and Draymond Green’s leadership put MSU in position for a comeback season
By Steve Hendershot
Friday’s Carrier Classic in San Diego marks the season-opening game for two traditional college basketball powers, North Carolina and Michigan State. The game is unique in several respects: The teams are playing on an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson; the game will be played outdoors; and President Obama will be in the stands. According to the forecast, it may even rain.
What isn’t unique, however, is that the Tar Heels are heavy favorites. UNC has beaten MSU in recent seasons even when the games were supposed to be close, most notably an 89-72 whipping to decide the 2009 NCAA Tournament championship. This year, Sparty looks even more like an underdog, checking in as an “also receiving votes” team in both the AP and Coaches polls after a disappointing 2010-11 season in which MSU finished seventh in the Big Ten despite being ranked second in the country in the preseason.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are a nearly unanimous #1, and look to improve upon a 23-6 finish last season that included an Elite Eight berth.
It makes sense why expectations are down in East Lansing, given the departures of Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, and the fact that Lucas’ heir apparent at point guard, Korie Lucious, was dismissed from the program last January. Based on the formula that MSU used to reach the 2009 and 2010 Final Fours, the Spartans are depleted.
There’s just one catch: Tom Izzo seems uncommonly excited about his 2011-12 team. The Michigan State coach isn’t known for spouting false optimism, and this fall he’s been telling everyone that he thinks he’s got a quality team on his hands. That’s in spite of the departures of Lucas and Summers, and after he learned of the retirement of senior forward Delvon Roe, who ended his career in late September because of a degenerative knee condition.
What does Izzo see?
Start with attitude. You get the sense that the most recent Spartan teams, despite their success, never quite embodied the blue-collar, lunch-pail attitude that Izzo prefers. Assistant coach Dwayne Stephens agrees: “I think we got away from some of the staples of our program last season, whether it be the rebounding, the toughness or the chemistry. Those are the staples of our program, and we got away from them last year. I think we’re on the right track to getting that back and doing those things, and I think we’ll be a better team for it.”
Then take leadership. Izzo thinks Draymond Green will provide the sort of fiery, galvanizing, bedrock leadership that the head coach craves, and that this young, malleable group of Spartans will play in Izzo’s image, with tenacity, intensity and a great, undying love for defense and rebounding.
Next, talent. Izzo would be the first to tell you that toughness and leadership are no match for elite skill and athleticism. But here’s the thing: MSU has plenty of talent. The Spartans are essentially bringing in two different recruiting classes, given that one of the stars from the 2010 class, Russell Byrd, appears to have recovered from a nagging foot injury and is ready to take the court. In addition, sophomore Adreian Payne played last year but missed the offseason leading into his freshman season due to a shoulder injury—a gap that’s significant enough for Izzo to regard 2011-12 as Payne’s first season, and to expect Payne to make a great leap forward this year.
Then you’ve got a couple of true freshmen who stand to make meaningful contributions. MSU fans have come not to expect instant-impact contributions from first-year players in Izzo’s complex system, but forward Branden Dawson is a legitimate NBA prospect whose freshman season could resemble Zach Randolph’s in 2001. Also, point guard Travis Trice, perhaps the least-heralded member of MSU’s recruiting class, is garnering serious buzz, and Izzo says he expects Trice to contribute right away.
In the backcourt, besides Trice, MSU has perhaps its brightest emerging star in sophomore Keith Appling. Appling and Byrd both are sharpshooters who should make these Spartans consistent and deadly from three-point range—a trait missing from recent MSU teams due to the streaky shooting of Summers, Lucious and Chris Allen.
That’s just the young talent. The Michigan State frontcourt will still have a senior anchor in Green, who played a key role in the Spartans’ 2009 and 2010 Final Four runs. Junior forward Derrick Nix could help the Spartans match up with Big Ten favorite Ohio State and the Buckeyes’ wide-bodied star center, Jared Sullinger. And Michigan State will mitigate the relative inexperience of its backcourt with the addition of Brandon Wood, a senior transfer from Valparaiso who was a first-team All-Horizon League selection last season. Wood completed his degree at Valparaiso last season and is enrolled in graduate-level classes at MSU, which enables him to compete for the Spartans right away instead of sitting out a year under NCAA transfer rules. Wood should be fired up for the Carrier Classic: While playing for Valparaiso, he once scored 24 points in a game against the Spartans, and 30 points in a game against North Carolina.Back to BasicsIzzo’s optimism seems to be as much about his team’s personality as its talent. He and Stephens believe this will be a tough, scrappy group that crashes the boards, defends end to end, and runs the floor for 48 minutes—in other words, not just a team that can win games, but the sort of team that Izzo loves to coach and that Michigan State fans love to cheer for.
If the leaders of this year’s Spartans are Green and Appling, it bodes well for the team’s personality, because each is capable of exceptional defense. And when a team’s leaders are setting the tone by demonstrating effort, toughness and skill on defense, it can be infectious.Big Ten, Big OpportunityOhio State is clearly the Big Ten favorite. Even if the Buckeye team consisted of Sullinger and four students selected at random from the student body, OSU would still likely be the conference favorite and nationally ranked. But the Buckeyes instead boast a quality rotation that also features two standout guards, sophomore Aaron Craft and senior William Buford.
Outside of Columbus, however, most of Michigan State’s conference rivals are in the midst of at least as much transition as the Spartans are experiencing. Given Izzo’s confidence that his team will coalesce, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine MSU competing for second place in the Big Ten.
Does that mean that Michigan State can hang with the top-ranked Tar Heels on Friday? Don’t bet on it. But Izzo is looking forward to melding his team this season, so don’t be surprised if MSU plays its way into the Top 25 and ultimately makes another NCAA Tournament run.
Steve Hendershot is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him @stevehendershot or at stevehendershot.com.