EAST LANSING - With decreased external expectations, a good influx of new talent, improved chemistry and a rare chance to sneak up on opponents, Tom Izzo is smiling again these days.
"I'd be kidding you if I didn't say I felt the best I've felt in a long time as far as raring to go and ready to go," Izzo said during Michigan State's Basketball Media Day press conference on Tuesday.
The Spartans are coming off a disappointing
19-15 season in which they finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten and were one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament, despite being a preseason national favorite to make a run at the Final Four.
But last season's summer injuries and dismissals of two former starters resulted in one of Izzo's most challenging and least-enjoyable seasons. Now, heading into his 17th year, the legendary Spartan head coach is blowing a happy whistle again at practice these days.
"It is going to be fun because there have not been very many times that we've not been picked in the Top 20 or 25 in the last 13, 14 years," Izzo said. "The one time we weren't, we got to a Sweet 16. So I'm going to use that as motivation."
The Spartans are low on proven players, but high on talent.
"We've got two guys that have played more than 20 minutes a game, and that is DayDay (Draymond Green) and Keith Appling," Izzo said. "And Keith will be moving from two guard to point guard, which will be a new position for him, of sorts. I think seven players on our roster haven't played a minute for us. So it is a different looking team, but some of that is kind of exciting too."
All of those unknowns and inexperience would send lesser programs into an abyss of doubt. But Izzo is relishing the opportunity to reload and develop.
"When you have what's supposed to be considered a somewhat down year going in and you're still in some peoples' Top 20 or Top 30, when you're still getting your Midnight Madness covered by ESPN, I think it talks a little bit about where our program's at, and that excites me as much as anything we're doing."
This season will be the first since 2006-2007 that the Spartans are not a favorite in the Big Ten or a popular Top 20 choice.
"It's like 2007, when Drew Neitzel was a junior and we seemed to have lost a lot of people, and we lost Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager and Paul Davis, yet we bounced back," Izzo said. "It was kind of a fun team to watch. This is going to be a fun team to watch. I think what you're going to really enjoy about this team is it's a team you want to support."
This team has more talented players than the '07 squad, but is probably Izzo's least-experienced team - especially with news earlier this month that three-year starter Delvon Roe had to retire due to chronic knee injuries.
"Blending our experience, or lack there of, with our in between guys, with our rookie guys, I think the chemistry and camaraderie is going to be a lot better than it's been," Izzo said.
Meanwhile, the skill level is strong.
"We have quality depth at each position," Izzo said. "We just don't have quality experience. When I say quality depth, I mean good enough players two deep at each position, we just don't have the experience. So I think it's a little more exciting. They're going to grow and get better."
Izzo listed six players as being the favorites to earn starting jobs:
Green, Appling, junior center Derrick Nix, sophomore power forward Adreian Payne, freshman wing Branden Dawson and senior Brandon Wood, a transfer from Valparaiso.
"When you look at that group talent-wise, it's a pretty talented group," Izzo said.
Behind them is a second five consisting of true freshman Travis Trice at point guard, redshirt freshman Russell Byrd at shooting guard, freshman Brandan Kearney at wing forward, redshirt freshman Alex Gauna at power forward and senior wing Austin Thornton.
"Every time this team hits the court, I think you're going to see a different passion and intensity, number one, because I think they're a closer knit team," Izzo said. "They are into it. They are going to play hard, they want to play hard. I'm enjoying this."
Izzo fully expects to extend his streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to 15, which is the third-longest in the nation.
He isn't ducking away from labeling his team as a Big Ten title contender. "Our league's funny this year," Izzo said. "I think we are (a contender) because I think everybody's got some holes."
Even the F words are being mentioned.
"You're always hoping to play for a Final Four, but we have so much work to do before we can start thinking that," Izzo said. "It's we're kind of back to let's improve this week, next week the week after, and then keep reassessing our goals as we go.
"I feel better than I've felt in three years. I'm excited to get going."
Is He Crazy?
How could Izzo mention the Final Four with a team that will be relying on so many unproven players?
Well, he expects Green and Appling to form an exceptional duo. Izzo loves Green's blossoming leadership, and Appling's defense and athleticism.
"I think Keith is an even better athlete that Kalin Lucas was," Izzo said. "He's really done a great job working on his ball handling. He's spent more time watching film and decision making. I think that's going to be the key."
Appling (6-1, 190, Soph., Detroit) averaged 6.4 points per game last year while starting 18 at the shooting guard. A 41-percent shooter from 3-point range a year ago, Appling will move primarily to the point this season - although he can slide to the two occasionally if Trice or Wood come along as viable point guard options.
Appling scored in double figures in four of Michigan State's last six games last season. He looks quick, strong and comfortable with his expanded role.
"I'll be surprised if he isn't the best defensive player in this league," Izzo said. "He's done a lot defensively last year, and he's been dynamite this year."
Dawson (6-6, 220, Fr., Gary, Ind.) is one of the most physically-ready freshmen Izzo has ever signed.
"I said he would be one of the best rebounders I've seen here in a long time, best offensive rebounders," Izzo said. "He's not disappointed me at all. What he has been better than I thought he would be is picking up things. Little better defensively than I thought he would be, and a little better at shooting the ball than I thought from range. Not what I would consider a three-point shooter yet, but the best comparison is like a Raymar Morgan. He does a few things a little better than Raymar, not quite as good defensively as Raymar, but similar body. Maybe even better hops."
"That guy (Dawson) goes and gets it like nobody I've seen," Payne said.
Don't be surprised if Dawson, a McDonald's All-American, is an impact freshman, on a national level.
Green (6-7, 230, Sr., Saginaw) will be a fourth-year starter at power forward. He averaged 12.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game last year as a third-team All-Big Ten selection, and carved out his own chapter in MSU basketball history by playing a significant role for both Final Four teams in '09 and '10.
"He's got a chance to become a thousand point scorer and a thousand point rebounder," Izzo said. "There's only been three in the history of our school."
At 230 pounds, he's a bit leaner than he's been in the past.
"He's changed his body fat a lot," Izzo said. "He has probably worked harder on his shooting than anybody we've had this year other than Austin Thornton and has now become a very good three-point shooter. We'll be moving him around, or I should say maybe not different positions, but he'll have different opportunities. We'll have him handle the ball. He'll be a point forward sometimes, he'll be a shooter sometimes. He'll be a banger sometimes. We'll move him all over.
"He is pretty solidified where he can be an Alan Anderson four man now, which means he can do a lot of different things. He shoots the ball as well as anybody we've got right now in the spot-up."
What About Inside?
Nix has the look of being one of the most improved players in the Big Ten. He never played below 282 a year ago, and eventually ballooned up past 320, but weighed in at a chiseled 267 on Tuesday.
His physique, quickness in the open court and sharp footwork in the post gives big Nix (6-9, Jr., Detroit) the look of a completely different player.
"This kid has made incredible strides," Izzo said. "I think now if he can be consistent, he's going to have a great year. This kid has matured. I talked to Morris Peterson this weekend and told him to talk to Nix, because I see a maturation process of the same magnitude."
Nix has 17 career starts to his credit, including a starting role for the 2010 Final Four team. He averaged just 8.2 minutes per game last year, scored 2.7 points per game and briefly left the team in December and considered a transfer. But Nix has matured greatly during the off-season, Izzo said.
"He's improved his shooting. He's improved his free throw shooting a lot," Izzo said. "He has done a pretty good job in the classroom. His ability to get up and down the court has quad-zippled from what it was. I know that's not a word. It is in the U.P., so the hell with you guys. It's been fun to have him around."
Payne (6-10, 240, Soph., Dayton, Ohio) might have more pure talent than any player on the roster. He is past the shoulder injury which hampered his progress a year ago, and is 20 pounds heavier and stronger.
"There is just a different aura and attitude among those two," Izzo said. "I've already seen in a week them grow a lot."
And they'll grow faster, with Roe out of the picture.
"Payne and Nix have become like real brothers now where they work with each other every day," Izzo said. "They beat on each other in different ways. Nix is strength and size, Payne is athleticism. Payne shoots the ball very well. He's grasping concepts of what we're doing a lot better. He's just better off.
"He is taking a big step emotionally, a big step mentally. A big step as far as he's gained 15, 20 pounds. That was important. He's a lot more physical.
"The injury last year set him back a lot, and then trying to play catch-up in the second half of the year is hard. So I think he too is poised for a breakout season."
Wood Looking Good
Wood, a first-team All-Horizon League guard while at Valparaiso last year, transferred to Michigan State in June. He comes with immediate eligibility, having already earned a degree at Valparaiso. He is capitalizing on an NCAA rule which allows graduates to transfer with immediate eligibility in order to begin pursuing a masters degree in a field not offered at the previous school.
Wood (6-2, 190, Sr., Kokomo, Ind.) averaged 16.7 points as a junior at Valpo and 17.7 as a sophomore. He shot 36 percent from 3-point range last year and 37 percent as a sophomore.
"Brandon Wood is a guy that has a chance to start coming in," Izzo said. "He's a better athlete that I thought. He's a little stronger than I thought. It's nice to have a guy with experience that's graduated and has a maturity level that he has. If you spend some time with the guy, you're going to love him. He is very mature.
"In the three seasons at Valpo he scored over a thousand points. But it's going to take an adjustment to get the Big Ten ball. He's played against Big Ten, ACC teams, but it's going to take an adjustment to do it on a night-in, night-out basis."
What About The Bench?
In addition to Payne, the Spartans are likely to get an impact from redshirt freshman Alex Gauna off the bench. Gauna (6-9, 240, Eaton Rapids) is a sweet-shooting big man who jumps and finishes well. He has the build to bang inside, but has yet to hone that craft.
"Alex Gauna is going to be a very good addition," Izzo said. "He gives us an A.J. Granger type player. He's a good pick and pop guy. There's one thing he's got to work on is getting his tail back in the post. He's a physical guy that's got to play physical. He's gotten a little stronger."
Trice and Byrd are a pair of newcomers who need to deliver important roles.
Trice (6-0, 170, Fr., Huber Heights, Ohio) is Appling's back-up at point guard. How well he plays could have an impact on how much rest Appling gets per night, and how often Appling will be able to slide to the two.
"He's a son of a coach. He has a good understanding of the game," Izzo said of Trice. "He's been hampered a little bit. Came down on his back in a scrimmage right before the regular practices started. Nothing serious, but just came down real good on it, so he's been slowed a little bit because of that.
"But he is a gym rat, understands the game, works on it. He's going to be a great back-up point guard. He is a little better than athlete than I thought. Like Appling, he's got to continue to put on weight."
Byrd (6-7, 205, R-Fr., Fort Wayne, Ind.) returned to the court full-time two weeks ago after major surgery on his foot in May. It was his third surgery since suffering a fractured bone after his senior year in high school.
Byrd has a pretty good physical build and has surprised coaches and teammates with good jumping ability, to go along with his reputation as a fine shooter from long and medium range.
Byrd is playing through pain due to scar tissue, but that should subside. The foot is good and strong.
"In his practices he's only going halfway, but you can already see he definitely would have helped us a lot last year if he would have been able to play," Izzo said. "We haven't seen him play other than four or five days. The four or five days I've loved what I've seen. I thought he could shoot the ball, and he can still shoot the ball even though he's had so much time off.
"What he's done in the off-season, is he's gotten stronger, bigger, his upper body strength is better than I thought. He moves his feet better. So getting him back on that wing will really help our perimeter play.
"Being that better athlete than I thought, and having him and a guy like Branden Dawson out there, if he's ready to go, we're going to be well set at that position."
Brandan Kearney (6-5, 185, Fr., Detroit) is sleek and skilled, but might have a harder time earning immediate playing time than the other freshmen.
"Physically, he's got to mature, and he's got to do it in a short period of time," Izzo said. "But I think he knows that, understands it, and I'm very pleased by where he's at compared to where I thought he might be at.
"I was concerned a little bit when he came about his strength. His strength is still an issue, but his versatility has been better than I thought, and his shooting has been better than I thought. He's got good length. He handles the ball well with both hands. What that will translate to in game situations, I don't know yet."
Austin Thornton (6-5, 205, R-Sr, Cedar Springs) is back after starting five games last year due to personnel crises. He averaged 2.0 points per game.
Thornton shot just .19 percent from 3-point range and set out to improve that area of his game throughout the summer. He missed the summer of 2010 with a broken bone in his back, but put in more time working on his shot than anyone on the team this off-season. There is a chance that his shooting and defense have improved enough for him him to be more productive than he was a year ago when he averaged 11.1 minutes per game.
Thornton is being referred to as a team captain by coaches. Izzo taps into Green and Thornton as his eyes and ears.
"I've been in more meeting with Izzo in the last four weeks than in the previous four years," Thornton said. "I'm looking forward to contributing any way that I can."
"What we need out of him first is leadership," Izzo said of Thornton. "We talked about it last year. We thought it was a weakness of our team, and so he did a great job of that in the summer.
"He's played in two Final Fours. What he didn't do as well last year is shoot the ball, and he is a good shooter."
Michigan State will play exhibition games at Breslin Center on Sunday, Oct. 30 against Ferris State (2 p.m.) and Friday, Nov. 4 against Hillsdale (7 p.m.)
The Spartans will begin the season with the toughest two-game opener of any team in the nation. Michigan State will play North Carolina on Nov. 11 in San Diego on deck of the USS Carl Vinson. North Carolina is the consensus preseason No. 1 pick.
Four days later, Michigan State will face Duke in New York's Madison Square Garden in the Champions Classic. Duke is a consensus Top 10 team.
MSU has never opened a season against two ranked teams.
"Of all the years to start out with Carolina and Duke, if I had to look at my 17 years, this would rank in the bottom couple that I'd want to do that with."
The game against UNC on the aircraft carrier was more than seven years in the making. It just happens to come during a season when MSU was invited to play Duke in the inaugural Champions Classic. Kentucky will play Kansas in the other half of the classic. Michigan State will face Kansas and Kentucky in the next two years as part of the three-year, touring contract.
"We were offered this opportunity to play in the Champions Classic, which I thought for our program, our university, our alums, it was too good to pass up," Izzo said. "At the same time, when we scheduled it, we thought we'd have Korie Lucious back and Delvon Roe back. So that creates some problems for us early, but it also created an exciting off-season on two things you can look forward to maybe aim towards."
MSU will also play at Gonzaga on Dec. 10 and at Eastern Michigan on Nov. 27.
"I think it's going to give us a schedule that will prepare us for the Big Ten," Izzo said. "I think we figured out that 21 of the 31 opponents we'll face this year were in tournament play last year, including the NIT. That is as good as it gets. That's kind of what we've done all along. And I bitched and moaned that I was going to change some of that, and I did. I think I made it harder.
"I'm not sure that's proper for this team or fair for this team. But as Andre Hudson said over at our reunion that's what we do here, so what's what we do."
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