Wednesday, February 21, 2024

'I love it': Tom Izzo talks preseason rankings, sky-high expectations for 2023-2024 season

October 4, 2023
<p>Coach Tom Izzo gives a speech at Midnight Madness 2022, held at the Breslin Center on October 8, 2022.</p>

Coach Tom Izzo gives a speech at Midnight Madness 2022, held at the Breslin Center on October 8, 2022.

Photo by Denille Reid | The State News

Michigan State’s men’s basketball team enters 2023-2024 with the highest expectations it’s had in years

With four returning starters, a top-five recruiting class and several other key returners, the Spartans have all the tools necessary to be in the national title picture from the moment they take the floor on Nov. 6 against James Madison College. 

Speaking to the media Tuesday, MSU head men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo acknowledged the unwavering hype around his squad ahead of one of its most important seasons.

“I have seen our team ranked in the top five, top ten,” Izzo said. “People have asked me the question of ‘Do you like that?’ I always say, ‘I love it.’” 

For a good while, MSU basketball consistently resided in the national rankings, but, for the past three seasons, the Spartans have found themselves fighting for a middle-of-the-pack seeding in March at the very best. 

“I look back on a lot of things in the last three years—it’s been an interesting run for us,” Izzo said. “Not maybe what we’re used to here, and yet we’ve finished fairly strong most of those years and I think learned a lot.”

In 2021, MSU didn’t make it past the First Four in March, followed by a second-round exit at the hands of Duke in 2022. Last season, a promising run for the Spartans was cut short by a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16.

“We’ve gone through some tough times,” Izzo said. “It’s great when tough times here [are] getting to the Sweet 16 and the second round.”

Izzo said he hasn’t felt any less pressure in recent years and is pleased with the pre-season recognition his squad has received. This is where MSU belongs, he said. 

“The program has earned the right to be considered a quality program,” Izzo said. “If it’s not right there, that upsets me more ... Like my players, we’re looking forward to the challenge, we’re looking forward to living up to expectations."

MSU returns a strong set of upperclassmen, led by graduate student guard Tyson Walker, senior guard AJ Hoggard and junior guard Jaden Akins. The Spartans also bring back graduate student Malik Hall, whose consistency and health will play a factor in their level of success and senior center Mady Sissoko

The upperclassmen, all of whom have been at MSU for their entire collegiate tenures, excluding Walker, will be a staple of who the Spartans are this season, Izzo said. 

“We should have great leadership, but leadership doesn’t come from age and doesn’t always come from experience,” Izzo said. “It comes from who you are and what you are. They’ve got the experience of winning, and they’ve got the experience of losing.”

MSU is no stranger to a grueling schedule in November and December. Izzo, notorious for battle-testing his players with marquee matchups early, is satisfied with the non-conference slate. 

The Spartans’ first test comes at the Champions Classic, where they face Duke in Chicago. Nine days later, they fly to Palm Springs, California, to take on the highly-touted Arizona Wildcats on Thanksgiving Day. Then, on Dec. 16 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, MSU battles Baylor. 

During a dark period for the reeling MSU football program and basketball expectations at an all-time high, Izzo said he feels more weight on his shoulders than he normally would

“I’m not excited that I have to feel that way, but I’m proud that I get the opportunity to represent the 650,000 living alums,” Izzo said. “I always say to a player, ‘Unless you’ve been through something, success never feels quite as good.’”

MSU opens the season with two exhibition games against Hillsdale and the University of Tennessee, the latter being scheduled as a charity exhibition to support relief efforts from the Maui wildfires, with all proceeds going to the Hawai’i Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund. 

In addition to supporting a cause, Izzo said the charity exhibition will be a fascinating display of basketball between two “blue-collar” and “smash-mouth” teams

“In some polls, we’re both in the top five or six,” Izzo said. “I think it’ll be as good a game that people are going to be able to see at Breslin against two similar teams.”

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