Tom Izzo was subdued during Michigan State Madness, at least by his normal standards.
This is a guy who has ridden a horse and Harley-Davidson horsepower into the Breslin Center in previous years during the annual event that launches the basketball season. He’s been lowered from the rafters — and gotten hung up in the air — before. This year’s entrance was a simple stroll onto the court with his wife and children. And his new orange Hall of Fame jacket.
At the end of his hoops sermon to the masses, Izzo pointed up to the rafters where he once dangled and talked about adding to the Big Ten championship banners on one end.
“We’re going to go to work and try to do what we do at Michigan State,” Izzo said. “We’re going to try to hang up another banner on that side.”
Then he turned to the other end of the arena and pointed to the banners honoring the nine Final Four appearances the program has made. Seven of those trips have come in the last 17 years.
“And I promise you we’re going to work our ass off to hang another banner on that side.”
Those are the expectations of Michigan State basketball and, from that perspective, this season will be no different than any other. This season brings a new dynamic to Izzo’s program. It’s a freshman dynamic that no other team in Izzo’s 21 previous seasons has seen. Four talented freshmen, led by guard/forward Miles Bridges, will be at the forefront of any success the Spartans have this season.
Kentucky under John Calipari has played and won with revolving-door freshmen classes. Mike Krzyzewski embraced the recruiting and playing of so-called “one-and-done” freshmen at Duke a couple of years back and has maintained his program’s elite status.
Izzo has joined the club, although he’s got enough upperclassmen talent and voices to pass along the core philosophies.
“Keep them focused,” Michigan State senior guard Alvin Ellis III said. “They don’t know what it’s like to play in the Big Ten yet. It’s going to come fast and we’re going to have to keep them on top of everything. We’ll have to keep them calm.”
The first test of Izzo’s new plan comes Friday night in Honolulu when the Spartans, ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, open the season against No. 10 Arizona. The game (7 p.m. ET) is part of the Armed Forces Classic being broadcast on ESPN. Fellow Big Ten member and No. 11 Indiana faces No. 3 Kansas in the second game of the doubleheader.
It is the start of a November schedule that has Michigan State traveling more than 13,600 miles in 22 days.
“I know one thing,” said Izzo at his first media session of the preseason, “by a little after Turkey Day, we’re gonna have a little clue on – I’m not sure we’ll have a clue where we are, because there’s gonna be so many big games – but we’ll have a clue of what we gotta get better at and what we gotta work on.”
Bridges is on the 50-player Naismith Award preseason watch list as the nation’s best college basketball player. He is one of 12 freshmen on the list and one of 10 players from the Big Ten. He and guard Josh Langford were McDonald’s All-Americans last season. Point guard Cassius Winston was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball last season. Power forward Nick Ward was a first-team Division I all-Ohio selection.
“They’ve got a ton of talent there, whether it’s Josh Langford or Cassius Winston or any of these guys. And (sophomore guard) Matt McQuaid’s back. They’ve got a lot of talent,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “They just don’t have a ton of big guys, and he’s always had big guys he could rely upon, so I think they would have to play a little bit differently and play smaller and go toward some of the things we’ve seen where you might have Bridges at the 4. Something like that, where normally he would be a 3-man if you had a couple of guys inside, he’s probably going to be playing more of a 4.”
Replacing or reloading?
Michigan State led the nation in rebounding margin (plus-11.4), 3-point shooting (43.4 percent), assists-per-game (20.5) and total assists (719) last season. It also lost its top three scorers from last season – national player of the year Denzel Valentine (19.2 ppg), Bryn Forbes (14.4) and Matt Costello (10.7).
Senior guard Eron Harris (9.8) is the top returning scorer. He averaged 17.4 points per game as a sophomore at West Virginia before transferring to Michigan State. He played more of a defensive role last season. Harris is being asked to do more this season.
“This is my third year here. I know the ropes,” Harris said. “I know the basics of the defensive principles, I know how to watch film. My offense is going to progress. I’m a great offensive player but I still have some room to grow, so I’m excited to be improving over this whole entire season.”
There will be plenty of experimenting going on with the starting lineup and the bench rotation before anything is settled.
“We’re going to be moving some people around,” Izzo said. “There could be a day when I start four freshmen. There could be a day when I start one. I don’t see it changing every week but I’ve got to look at what’s best for those players and what’s best for the team and what each guy can handle, that’s part of it too. The lineup might be a little different right now if I thought everybody could handle certain things.”
Experimenting with lineups and working through tough non-conference schedules is nothing new for Izzo. The goals for the season haven’t changed. The makeup of the roster, now that’s different.
“It will be tested the next month,” Izzo said. “This is where it has to be strong because everybody gets along until you lose, until someone goes 1 for 11, until something happens, and then you’re really going to need, and that’s why I said all hands on deck. Everybody’s got to be in this together. We’ve got a rough road ahead of us, and I’m kind of enjoying the fact that we’re going to be doing it this week.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo