The five-month journey begins tonight. Ask any MSU men’s basketball player what their goal is for the season, and the same answer will come every time.?
In Tom We Trust
Expectations have never been higher as No. 2 MSU sets sights on championship run this season
It’s not to improve their draft stock or grab as many minutes as possible, but a shared team goal that rests about 1,135 miles away — winning the national championship in Arlington, Texas.
The road to Arlington starts when the Spartans take on McNeese State at 7 p.m. at Breslin Center.
If the Spartans come up short and fail to make the Final Four, it will be the first time head coach Tom Izzo has not sent a four-year player to the elite stage.
Speaking for the team, sophomore guard Gary Harris erased any doubt the streak isn’t already weighing on the players’ minds.
“We want to keep that streak going for coach (Izzo) and his legacy, and for ours as well, so we have to win this year,” Harris said during media day on Oct. 22.
Have to win.
That is the kind of culture Izzo created starting in the 1998-99 season, when he sent his first Final Four banner to Breslin Center’s rafters. At the end of the next season, in 2000, Izzo produced his first national championship and MSU’s second.
He came up short the following year. Despite losing players to the NBA Draft and graduation, Izzo said he believed his 2001 squad would repeat. Thirteen seasons later, Izzo made it known this could be the team to deliver his second national title.
“Other than (the 2001 team), I don’t think we’ve ever had as good of a chance,” Izzo said.
In 2010, the team opened up with similar expectations, but ultimately fell flat, posting a 19-15 record and suffering a first-round exit at the hands of UCLA. Junior forward Alex Gauna, who was redshirted that season, didn’t hesitate to name the difference between the team three years ago and the one that will take the floor tonight.
“Our team chemistry now is 10 times stronger than it was three years ago,” Gauna said. “That’s going to carry that into a different direction. We didn’t have that my freshman year, and obviously that hurt us losing in the first round.”
After senior center Adreian Payne and sophomore guard Gary Harris passed on the 2013 NBA Draft last spring, basketball pundits immediately cast MSU as a national title contender.
Since coming back, Payne and Harris already have been named to numerous preseason All-American lists, as well as award watch lists.
“Harris is illegal because I ask NBA guys that come in — I asked one that came in today — how many have a shooting guard that is maybe one of the best defenders? They say the same thing. That’s un?American. That’s unallowed,” Izzo said.
Not only does MSU have its stars back, the team also returns the bulk of its lineup, including Appling.
The three-year starter at point guard has struggled adapting to the position, but Izzo said he has improved over the summer.
“I thought about pulling him in the seventh inning, and I decided to keep him where he’s at,” Izzo said about possibly switching him from the point guard position. “I think he went from just trying to be a scoring point guard or maybe looking for a shot first, and now sometimes, he’s almost looking for it second.”
Back to full strength
The Spartans also will enter the season after having one of the healthiest summers during Izzo’s tenure at MSU.
Although they finished with a Sweet 16 appearance last season, the Spartans battled injuries the entire summer prior, as well as throughout the course of the season.
Despite not missing a game last season, junior guard/forward Branden Dawson missed out on a summer of development prior to the 2012-13 season. He missed critical time with the team after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the final regular season game his freshman year against Ohio State.
This summer, Izzo said he got to develop in ways he couldn’t after the injury.
“He definitely appears to me to have all his athleticism back, and he appears to have definitely improved his shooting,” Izzo said. “He’s improved his confidence and that’s going to help us.”
Harris and junior guard Travis Trice also have a clean bill of health.
Harris battled with injuries all of last year, and Trice missed the entire summer prior to last season because of a mysterious brain infection. The infection caused Trice to drop a great deal of weight. Izzo said Trice was the most improved player over the summer and is in the best shape of his life.
Harris hopes the whole team can stay healthy.
“This is the first time we’ve all been healthy since I’ve been here,” Harris said. “(The) beginning of the season last year, we had injuries here and there. This is the first actual time we’re going in when everybody’s healthy. Everybody’s ready to play.”
Anyone, anywhere, anytime
Once again, Izzo has put MSU in a schedule tough enough to make other coaches wince.
Looking at the season’s slate, nine opponents played in last year’s NCAA Tournament, with six other teams playing in other postseason tournaments. At media day, Izzo pointed out how his best seasons started with a testing schedule.
“I think most of the Final Fours I’ve been in, we’ve had the team with the most losses, and I think some of that is because of what we do (playing tough schedules),” Izzo said.
Right off the bat, MSU will square off against Kentucky in the Champions Classic — a No. 1 against No. 2 matchup. Payne, among all the other players, stayed mum on Wednesday when asked about the season’s biggest non-conference game.
“We’re not allowed to talk about Kentucky right now,” he said.
“We’re just taking it a game at a time and just trying to get prepared. The only thing that can really hurt us is if we don’t come out and play (Friday against McNeese State) to the best of our ability.”
Less than a month after their early-season test, MSU will welcome No. 12 North Carolina for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
The grueling Big Ten schedule will shortly follow, and Izzo believes the conference will show more power than last season.
“The Big Ten, to me, top to bottom I think is going to be better,” Izzo said at media day. “I don’t think the top will be quite as good, we had some really, really good teams. I think we’ll still have four or five really, really good teams (though). “
Izzo also mentioned how Penn State and Iowa will show major improvement this season — making every game a legitimate challenge. The top dogs fighting MSU for the title will be No. 7 Michigan, No. 11 Ohio State, No. 20 Wisconsin, and Indiana, who fell just outside of the Associate Press preseason poll.
This season, Big Ten play will be interrupted with an oddity — a non-conference game in New York City against Georgetown during Super Bowl weekend.
“(My players said they) came to play the best schedules,” Izzo said. “Sometimes you get what you wish for, and sometimes it’s negative, sometimes it’s positive. I think this is a positive thing. They’re going to play the best teams.”?
‘We don’t play Kentucky next, we play McNeese’
Harris made the team’s focus clear at MSU’s practice Wednesday.
“We don’t play Kentucky next, we play McNeese,” Harris said. “They’re the first team on our schedule, we gotta get started on the right foot and get the first game of the season before we can worry about the second game or any other game after that.”
With a highly anticipated matchup looming against No. 1 Kentucky, MSU only has one hurdle to clear before the Spartans can start to think about the trip to Chicago for the Champions Classic.
That hurdle is McNeese State, in the first-ever meeting between the two teams. The Cowboys, hailing from Lake Charles, La., finished last season with a 14-17 record and only have made two NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship tournaments, in 1989 and 2002.
Although McNeese State isn’t a basketball powerhouse and all eyes are on Tuesday’s game against Kentucky, Izzo said his team needs to understand there will be a target on the team’s back because of the high ranking.
Payne said it’s tough with the immense expectations, but the team is just trying to get better each day.
With the loss of only senior center Derrick Nix from last season’s squad, Payne said he believes this team shoots and runs better.
“Only thing that can really hurt us is if we don’t come out and play to the best of our ability,” Payne said. “We can’t come out and have one bad half and a good second half, that won’t do us no justice.”
The Cowboys will play the Spartans without star Desharick Guidry, who posted 12.6 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game last year.
Guidry will miss nine games because of academic-related reasons.
McNeese State will be led by junior point guard Kevin Hardy, who averaged 9.7 points and 6.2 rebounds.
After months of preparing for the season of their lives, the Spartans are anxious to get out in front of the crowd at Breslin Center.
“I’m kind of looking forward to it — we need to play,” Izzo said. “These guys have been practicing for 30, 40-some days and that’s a long time to practice without a game.”