EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tom Izzo had his kind of basketball team last season. It was led by four seniors. One was Denzel Valentine, who evolved into the national player of the year while never forgetting how he had evolved.
This season’s team is set up as close to 180 degrees opposite as possible.
That makes this season one of the most challenging of Izzo’s career. It’s why he’s excited for the first game to tip off Friday against Arizona.
Every coach every year has new challenges but this season is different for Izzo. He’s never had a freshman class rated this highly. Izzo has never planned on playing four freshmen, let alone counting so heavily on them.
“It’s gonna take a little time but I like where I think we can get to. I’m kind of excited to see how the process is gonna take place,” said Izzo as he spoke Monday at the Breslin Center. “It’s just been new territory for me. It’s kind of been fun to have to sit there and watch more film, maybe bring more guys in, talk to more guys individually. I’ve kind of enjoyed that part, to be honest with you.”
Miles Bridges, Josh Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward make up what has been deemed the third-best freshman class by those in the recruiting universe. Bridges and Langford were McDonald’s All-Americans as swing players. Winston, a point guard, was Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan. Ward was a first-team all-state player in Ohio as a power forward.
Exhibition games against Division II teams Northwood and Saginaw Valley State gave glimpses of what three of the four – Langford didn’t play because of a hamstring injury – could bring. In the case of Bridges, it’s more like what can’t he bring.
New things bring excitement because you think you know what you have. Yet, there is always the sense of anticipation that it could be so much more.
Izzo’s challenge is to mold that anticipation into a team capable of living up to its lofty expectations.
“Any time you’ve got so many young players, its teaching your system and your way of playing and then having to play while you’re doing it,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “When you’ve got so many guys that haven’t been – I don’t know what the right term is – indoctrinated or experienced in your system, you’re constantly having to teach. That’s where a lot is going to fall onto the older guys in drill work and all that, in the locker room, to let guys know that, hey, this is how we do it.”
Bilas is well-versed in how Izzo’s program functions. Izzo is in his 22nd season as the head coach. Bilas is in his 22nd season analyzing games for ESPN. He’ll be on the crew working Friday night when the No. 12-ranked Spartans face No. 10 Arizona in Hawaii as part of the State Farm Armed Forces Classic.
Bilas brought up during a conference call with national media how a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team. It’s a favorite saying of Izzo’s.
“One of the reasons he says that, because it’s a lot harder to have a player-coached team when you have younger players,” Bilas said. “They don’t know how to talk. When they do talk, they don’t know what to say. Oftentimes they might be a little bit behind because they’re trying to think their way through everything instead of instinctively reacting to everything they see.”
Michigan State’s culture – another key term heard around the Breslin Center during the preseason – is one where the older guys teach the younger guys. There are star players but no player is bigger than the program. It worked for Valentine last season, Draymond Green before him and down the line to Mateen Cleeves and others.
Michigan State has gone to 19 straight NCAA tournaments, reached seven Final Fours and won 12 Big Ten titles and a national championship. There’s a good reason why.
Adjustment of the system will be needed this season, but not an overhaul.
“I love the chemistry of the team, I love the togetherness. It’s been a little problem keeping everybody focused and I say that because that’s a young guy’s problem most of the time and the old guys are usually gonna help,” Izzo said.
Chemistry is another word that gets thrown around a lot.
“I think chemistry does mean that you’ve got a bunch of players pulling for each other, I think you’ve got players pulling for a common goal. You can have selfish players,” Izzo said. “I’m telling you, I have no idea what will happen so I’m saying it now: Miles is one of the best players I’ve had that has humility and cares about the other guys on the team, and I think Tum (Tum Nairn) does a lot for that.”
Nairn is the junior point guard who splits time with Winston but is also a mentor.
“He’s one of the more valuable guys that I’ve had,” Izzo said. “To do it the way he does it, I mean Cassius is a very good player but I think those guys have become best friends. It just speaks volumes of who he is.
“The culture? Yes. Players before have done a great job of teaching that to our guys now that are hopefully juniors like him but he’s just a different bird in his own way. There’s not many guys like him.”
Player-coached teams are better than coach-coached teams. That part will never change for Izzo and it will make his new challenge a little less challenging.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo