Saturday, July 4, 2020

'Icing on the cake': Michigan State basketball seeks a pair of firsts in pursuit of a second 

October 3, 2019
Cassius Winston answers a question during Big Ten basketball media day in Chicago on October 2, 2019.
Cassius Winston answers a question during Big Ten basketball media day in Chicago on October 2, 2019. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

Rosemont, Ill. – While the Spartans were unanimously predicted to win the league preceding Big Ten media day Wednesday, they have yet to be evaluated by an official preseason poll. And while Cassius Winston earned the consensus Big Ten player of the year prediction, he is yet to take the floor in his senior season.

As the AP poll is yet to become official for the 2019-20 season, most expect the Spartans to claim the top spot in those rankings too, setting up a top-two matchup with the presumed No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats to open the season at Madison Square Garden on November 5.

This is not necessarily uncharted territory for the Spartans, as a No. 2 Michigan State team loaded with returners and expected to make a title run defeated the No. 1 preseason Kentucky Wildcats 78-74 to open the season in 2013; MSU also returned conference player of the year Mateen Cleaves in 1998-99 and Kalin Lucas in 2009-10.

Winston has already delivered on one of the “firsts” the Spartans look to establish this season; he is the first returning Big Ten Player of the Year to be named Preseason Player of the Year in the following season since Lucas accomplished the feat in 2009-10. 

Now two more “firsts” are up for grabs this season. While Winston seeks to win conference player of the year in consecutive years for the first time since Cleaves did in 1998 and 1999, this MSU team looks to claim the top spot in the preseason poll for the first time in… 

Let’s dub it recent memory.

Surely Magic Johnson’s 1978-79 team made the case for AP’s top spot, but they came into the season at No. 7. The same applies for Cleaves’ senior year in 1999-2000, as Izzo emphatically flashed three fingers, recalling that the Spartans were slated at No. 3 to start that year.

If those teams didn’t earn preseason No. 1, then surely one of the many talented Izzo teams could’ve. 

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Spartan faithful recall the Sports Illustrated magazine cover of Kalin Lucas alongside preseason rankings in 2009, but, ironically, or perhaps unironically, the vivid image plasters “2 MICHIGAN ST” in large lettering with Kansas at No. 1.

The next season, Lucas’ senior year, he led his team into the campaign with the same nomination, No. 2. The aforementioned opening matchup with Kentucky in 2013 featured seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne with MSU at No. 2 once again. 

When Miles Bridges returned to join incoming Jaren Jackson Jr. on quite possibly Izzo’s most talented team in 2017-18, the Spartans entered the season to face Duke in a top-two matchup, with the Spartans ranked — right on cue — at No. 2.

“We were two when we played Kentucky, who was one, and they had the 40-0 shirts. We aren't making any of those,” Izzo said. “There'll be no 40-0 shirts because number one, the schedule we play, but number two, that puts so much more pressure on the team. It's not good enough to be playing at the end of March or beginning of April. Now you've gotta be undefeated and we're not that kind of team. We're just not talented enough game in, game out.”

This comment is curious considering the talented teams he’s had that weren’t able to achieve preseason No. 1. Most would credit Izzo’s self-deprecation to his method of keeping the team focused amidst preseason hype, but he uses the praise they’re receiving to contribute to their perspective.

“I think we just gotta learn from the past. You have to learn from other teams,” Izzo said. “You have to learn what went wrong. We have to learn from 2011. Why were we picked so high and we barely got into the tournament? ... The advantage of being an experienced coach and having an experienced staff is you remember those things. 

“Like all of us, until you go through something, it never hits home the same. But if we're going to be great, (players have) got to listen and that's why there's been a lot more individual meetings … explaining this is what happened before. Then I have some of those players (from past teams) come in and talk to them about it. And that helps too.”

Perhaps the recurring No. 2 status epitomizes the second title eluding Izzo for so long, as his teams come up just short on the semifinal stage. Perhaps it’s fitting that this team may be the one to break the trend in the polls, pointing toward things to come. Perhaps it’s merely coincidence.

But after the 61-51 loss to Texas Tech in his most recent Final Four, Izzo’s tone was not one of a coach uncertain whether his team would reach that stage again, but of a man looking ahead, determined to finally get over the hump.

“The first part of the message was to try to figure out what happened,” Izzo said following the loss. “Why did we do some uncharacteristic things? … I wanted to make sure we understand why I’m a masochist in my own way and … that the weight room, the strength, the toughness is so important. I wanted them to know that this spring, summer and fall, that this is why.”

It’s almost as if he’s seen this day coming for some time. While his title window is closing, it seems fitting that the stars align, that his aspirations and those of a senior guard coincide.

“It was the game plan from day one: graduate in three years, try to finish your master's in that time,” Izzo said of Winston. “That was the game plan from day one. … It is odd that a kid comes back like that. Some of his measurables and things dictate some of that.

"But I think the other thing that dictated it is he's not just about basketball. … I think he still has some things he knew he had to get better at. That's the most important. Trying to win a national championship is not a good reason to come back.”

Nevertheless, Winston gets to go for a national championship in the meantime, and Izzo gets his best remaining chance at a second.

In the end, it was junior forward Xavier Tillman that summed up the significance of this season, for Izzo, Winston and the Spartan team as a whole, best.

“Icing on the cake,” Tillman said. 

“That would be icing on the cake if we can finish it out the way that we wanted to finish up last year.” 

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