Michigan State men's basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo began his final preseason press conference before the start of the 2021-22 season with a simple message: “It’s finally game time.”
After a long wait this offseason, Michigan State basketball is ready to take the floor and put last season’s disappointments in the past. The 2020-21 campaign that resulted in a 15-13 record, MSU’s worst season (based on winning percentage) since going 16-16 in 1995-96, is firmly in the rearview mirror for the Spartans entering its first game against Kansas.
The focus for the Spartans is on having a bounce-back season. After nearly missing the NCAA tournament a year ago, MSU is looking to return to its level of sustained success that has defined Izzo’s long tenure. Izzo said he isn’t sure how the team will stack up against other competition but added it looks better than last year.
“When I think of how we are compared to last year's team, it's easy for me to relate,” Izzo said. “When I think of how we are according to who we're gonna play, it's a little more difficult to figure out. But the advantage of playing a team like this right off the bat, is you're going to get a good idea where you are.”
The first obstacle in the turnaround effort is the No.3 ranked Jayhawks in Madison Square Garden Tuesday night in the Champions Classic. The Spartans will have to face its issues head-on against a blue blood with some of the best returning players in the country in guard Remy Martin and senior center David McCormack on a national stage to start the season.
“It's always exciting to start the season,” Izzo said. “And when you start it like we do with this Champions Classic, it's a privilege, an honor. This year, even more so with Mike (Krzyzewski, Duke Head Coach) being in his final year. This will be something that everybody will remember.”
Michigan State enters the Champions Classic as the lone team left out of the AP top 25 preseason poll. Despite being unranked, Michigan State is operating business as usual heading into the monumental opener. Izzo said the team does not have a proverbial chip on its shoulder and the ranking, or lack thereof, gives them an opportunity to earn respect this season.
“I don't see anything wrong with where we were picked,” Izzo said. “I see a lot wrong if we end there.”
It will be the first look for the coaching staff and fans into the new-look Spartans. It’s an opportunity to see if returning players like senior forward Gabe Brown and senior center Marcus Bingham are ready for bigger roles in their senior season and if the newcomers like transfer junior point guard Tyson Walker and five-star freshman guard Max Christie are ready to play the best competition in the country.
Izzo said he is anxious to see what the team has in store Tuesday. The excitement built in his voice during his opening statement as he talked about seeing the new-look MSU team facing its first real test on opening night under the bright lights.
“I'm anxious to see how some of our guys respond,” Izzo said. “I'm anxious to see what Max (Christie) does. ... When you're at a school like this, there's a lot of memory-making events. But some of these we get to play in places that the greatest that ever played, it's a privilege. And I hope you look at it as a privilege.”
Win or loss, the battle against Kansas will not answer the question of whether or not MSU has fixed its issues that derailed last year’s team. The lingering questions of whether MSU has found an answer at point guard or can defend at the rim will persist past Tuesday night into the heart of the season.
Izzo alluded that the bigger question about the Spartan squad going into Tuesday is how this team stacks up against an established power in Kansas. The Jayhawks have a clear plan for the season with title aspirations; a place where Michigan State wants to be. The game will show how close or far the Spartans are from realizing its goals this year.
“We've had some battles in this tournament for the most part,” Izzo said. “Ninety percent of the games we played, win or lose, have been tough games and games that I think we've learned from. I don't see this any different.”
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