With closure on the Spartan basketball season, much optimism is already surrounding the 2003-04 campaign.
The Spartans stumbled out of the gate, and by early January, the Spartans were the "biggest disappointment" of the season. But the season finished with a glimpse of what could be in years to come, as the Spartans made a trip to the Elite Eight as a No. 7 seed.
MSU finished the season with a 22-13 record, including wins in eight of its last 10 games. Nine of 10 would have pitted Tom Izzo's Spartans in their fourth Final Four in five seasons.
"We had a tough season from the beginning, but in the tournament, I would say we played pretty good - but this is not the goal of this program to come to the Elite Eight," freshman forward Erazem Lorbek said. "Our goal is to get to the Final Four and win championship.
"We just have to take this experience to next year, try to win it next year."
With MSU's strong finish to the season and the team's core returning, three things seem imminent for the 2003-04 season: a preseason top-10 ranking, favorites for the Big Ten crown and an expected trip to the Final Four.
And if no players unexpectedly declare for the NBA Draft, MSU's offensive and defensive mold remains mostly unchanged, making the early expectations seemingly more attainable.
"We had a hell of a run, but I'm not sure we're where we want to be," Izzo said. "I don't think we have an identity yet. If you haven't won a championship, you can't put any mark into that."
The only noticeable departures from this year's team will be senior forwards Aloysius Anagonye, Adam Ballinger and Brian Westrick. Junior forward Adam Wolfe has decided not to return to the basketball team and will graduate in May.
Despite the losses, six of MSU's top seven scorers will return next season as the Spartans try to make their mark. The sophomore trio of guard Chris Hill, guard Kelvin Torbert and forward/guard Alan Anderson accounted for nearly half of MSU offense, contributing 32.2 points per game.
The freshmen trio was just as effective. Lorbek, center Paul Davis and guard Maurice Ager were all spark plugs off the bench, combining for 20.9 points per game - 34 per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Defensively, the Spartans will lose Anagonye who was one of the best low-post defenders in the Big Ten.
Torbert has emerged as the team's best defender. Izzo routinely assigns him to the oppositions' biggest scoring threat.
Continuing to help Torbert on defense will be Hill (51 steals), Lorbek and Davis, who recorded 20 and 19 blocks, respectively.
"I guess you could say this is a stepping stone for next year," Davis said following MSU's 85-76 loss to Texas. "Next year there is going to be a lot of experience on this team."
The incoming recruiting class is ranked as one of the nation's best. Shannon Brown and Brandon Cotton are expected to make an immediate impact. Brown, who finished second in Michigan's Mr. Basketball voting, had the second-highest scoring total in the McDonald's All-American Game, trailing only LeBron James - the NBA's projected No. 1 pick. Drew Naymick finished third in the Mr. Basketball voting and should see decent playing time - if he's not redshirted.
The team could loose some continuity if associate head coach Brian Gregory or assistant coach Mike Garland take a head coaching job. Illinois State seems immensely interested in Gregory next year, and Cleveland State has interest in Garland.
Regardless, expectations will remain high.
"Our goal is definitely to get past the Elite Eight next year," Davis said. "Now we just have to do it."