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Spartans hope to utilize depth this season

November 21, 2002
Senior forward Adam Ballinger lays up the ball past James Felton Thursday night during the MSU vs. Nike Elite game in the Breslin Center. This is the MSU men's team's last exhibition game before the regular season starts on November 22nd against UNC Asheville at the Breslin Center.

The MSU men's basketball team's return-to-dominance bandwagon is packed these days.

MSU was picked first in both preseason Big Ten polls, it landed a No. 9 national ranking and the Izzone is donning shirts with the slogan "East Lansing to New Orleans - Get out the way" on the back.

While the Spartans return nearly every major player - save Marcus Taylor - from the 2001-02 team that finished one game shy of sharing the conference title, many factors will have to swing MSU's way to reclaim the crown.

The biggest hurdle? Staying healthy.

Sophomore guard Kelvin Torbert, who started practicing again Tuesday, won't play until next week because of a foot injury. Freshman guard Maurice Ager has a stress fracture in his foot and won't play until the end of December.

Freshman center Paul Davis has a finger extension problem but should play in Friday's season opener against UNC Asheville. Sophomore guard Chris Hill took a freaky fall in the Nike Elite game last week, but he expects to play Friday as well. And sophomore guard Tim Bograkos will be 90 percent healthy by Friday, head coach Tom Izzo said.

All this before the first official game.

But like it or not, injuries happen, and Izzo said they don't serve as excuses.

Senior captains Aloysius Anagonye and Adam Ballinger agreed. Ballinger pointed to the 2000 national championship season when Mateen Cleaves sat on the bench for the first half of the season.

"That was huge," Ballinger said. "David Thomas had to step in and play the point. We're a better team with Mateen in, but we had to go out and win games when he was out."

While Torbert and Ager are out, Izzo is starting junior guard Rashi Johnson at point and rotating Hill at the one and two guard spots.

And although he may only be starting because of injuries, Johnson said he thinks Izzo wants him to play an important role all season.

"He has looked at me as someone to step up from the beginning," Johnson said. "I don't look at it as being because of injuries. That's not an excuse. We have to find ways to win."

But injuries aren't the team's only obstacle. The Spartans have the talent to win a lot this year, but only if they play to their potential.

In the first two preseason games, the Spartans looked rusty at times. For the first five minutes of the Nike game, MSU went up 17-4 and clicked on both ends of the court. But the final five minutes were very different - MSU wasted a 10-point lead and barely won by a point.

"We have to get better," Anagonye said. "We all have to get better. We got to play MSU basketball. That's a challenge that's easier said than done."

If talent and health can align, MSU's tough schedule could still knock the team back down. The Big Ten is obviously brutal, and although MSU was picked to lead the conference, the playing field is pretty level.

Before conference play starts, MSU plays Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, an array of second-tier teams and one tournament: the Great Alaska Shootout.

Obstacles or not, Anagonye said he'll leave MSU disappointed unless the team wins every championship from the Alaska Shootout to the NCAA Championship. Teams that make it that far usually have luck on their side. But Anagonye won't buy into that.

"You know what they say," he said. "Luck is the work you put in it. That's the truth."


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