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Wednesday, April 16, 2014


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Men's basketball feels hungry heading into new season




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Head coach Tom Izzo yells out to the court Friday at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Spartans upset the Purdue Boilermakers in a 74-56 victory. Matt Radick/The State News



*Jeremy Warnemuende*

Jeremy Warnemuende

You hear it from coaches all the time. They preach it to their players after wins and insist to media and fans it won’t be a problem. Still, we see it happen throughout the world of sports every year.

With success, often comes complacency.

The MSU men’s basketball team has experienced its fair share of success in the last 12 or so years. From Big Ten championships to Final Fours, and even a National Championship, the Spartans have been consistent enough to reasonably assume complacency never has been a problem.

Then last season happened, and the idea crept into the minds of many who follow the MSU program.

Despite returning one of the better guard duos in recent memory, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, the Spartans underacheived in 2010-11. Ranked No. 2 before the season started, MSU barely — and I mean barely — snuck into the NCAA Tournament, where the Spartans were bounced in the first round by UCLA.

To be fair, head coach Tom Izzo and his team weren’t exactly dealt a winning hand last season. The departures of guards Chris Allen and Korie Lucious hurt, as did the weight gain setbacks for then-sophomore center Derrick Nix. Simply put, there were way too many distractions on and off the floor to expect MSU to completely fulfill its National Title or bust mentality.

But for the Spartans to struggle to the point where simply making the NCAA Tournament seemed like a crazy idea at the end of the year, there had to be more than just distractions at work.

At MSU men’s basketball media day Tuesday, Izzo admitted complacency might have played a part in last season’s struggles, and it wasn’t just on the part of the players.

“It’s easy to think players get fat and sassy,” Izzo said. “Did coaches? Did people around them? Did we forget all the little things that make a difference?”

Izzo said that at the time, he didn’t think that was the case. However, it’s still something he said he has trouble assessing.

The core of last year’s team had experienced almost everything there is to experience as a college basketball player. Seven players from last year’s roster already had won two Big Ten championships and went to two Final Fours, including one in the Spartans’ own backyard: Detroit, in 2009.

This year, that number is down to two, and 10 of MSU’s 14 players have never won a Big Ten championship or made it to the Final Four.

So although youth — the Spartans feature six freshman or redshirt freshman and three sophomores — might cause some problems this season, it isn’t likely complacency will be one of them.

“The personality of this team is young and hungry,” senior guard Austin Thornton said.

Thornton and senior forward Draymond Green are the only two players left from those conference championship and Final Four teams. They’re the only ones who truly know what it’s like to reach the biggest stage in college basketball.

But just because they’ve had experiences most college basketball players only dream of, don’t expect them fall in the complacency trap that some players might have been unable to avoid last season. Especially when considering no four-year player under Izzo has failed to reach a Final Four, a tradition Thornton wants to be a part of continuing.

“It’s something we kind of hang our hat on,” Thornton said. “I want my guys to experience that because there’s nothing like winning a Big Ten championship and then getting on the road to the Final Four and making it there.”

If the Spartans don’t make it to New Orleans — site of the 2012 Final Four — this season, MSU’s 10 returning players in 2012 will have another chance.

However, senior guard Brandon Wood isn’t one of those players.

Although he won’t be a four-year player, Wood, who transfered from Valparaiso after last season, is one of the fresh faces hungry to get the Spartans back on track after last season. Prior to MSU, Wood spent two seasons at Southern Illinois, one season at Highland Community College and most recently, two seasons with the Crusaders.

For Wood, after spending four years jumping from school to school without anywhere near the opportunity he now has in East Lansing, the motivation level is high heading into this season.

“I’m probably one of the hungriest (players) on the team,” Wood said. “Being here for only one year and knowing I’m one and done — after this it’s the real world — I’m just trying to get as many championships as I can and win as many games as I can.”

With Wood and freshman guard Branden Dawson likely to be starters and the other first-year players expected to play major roles for the Spartans immediately, they’ll have a chance to turn their hunger into results.

And they won’t be the only ones. After MSU’s fall from glory last season, Izzo said he, Green and Thornton are ready to lead the team back to where it was just two years ago. Because as Izzo put it, “There definitely is more motivation when you disappoint yourself.”

So, it’s true that Thornton was on the right track when describing this year’s team as young and hungry. But from freshman to 5th year senior to 17-year head coach, the age isn’t important.

All that matters is the motivation, and this year’s Spartans appear to have plenty.


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