When Tom Izzo looks at this current Michigan State Spartans crew, he sees similarities to the 2007- 2008 Drew Neitzel led squad. The coach referenced this at the school’s media day and said that this year’s team is young, gritty but close-knit.
Neitzel’s team, and it was his team no doubt, is like the mold of this year’s squad.
That final four team had lost its trio of superstars—stellar seniors Maurice Ager and Paul Davis and junior Shannon Brown, who now has a few rings with the L.A. Lakers. This year’s team has lost experienced Final Four veterans, and quite frankly, expectations are barely existent.
Now, Izzo is starting this season with 7 players on the roster who never played a minute for the Spartans and only two players that have played more than twenty minutes a game—senior Draymond Green and sophomore Keith Appling.
And now for the Spartan head coach, it’s all about rebounding, not just in the paint, but also with his game plan.
Izzo lost one of his best defensive players inside, Delvon Roe, after he announced that he was ending his playing career because of nagging knee injuries and an aspiring acting career.
Izzo dismissed disciplinary prone guard Korie Lucious, whose game-winning, buzzer-beater shot against Maryland in 2010 sent the Spartans to their 9th Sweet Sixteen appearance in 14 years.
Izzo graduated Kalin Lucas, one of the fastest players to ever grace East Lansing, and his hard-nosed Detroit recruit Durrell Summers.
What strong force does Izzo have left from the remnants of last season’s disappointing and underachieving 19-15 team?
The senior PF has always been the Spartans’ vocal leader so carrying the team on his back ala Greg Jennings-style shouldn’t be too difficult, but a lot will be expected. So much, in fact, that Izzo was quoted in ESPN’s Big Ten team preview saying that Green needs to lead this team of youngins’ in the same way that Kemba Walker led UConn last season. And we all know how that turned out.
Green’s leadership could turn out to be the team’s most important intangible if they even want a shot at continuing their post-season appearance streak or chance at the Big Ten title.
But before we get ahead of ourselves and start dreaming of cutting down the nets at the end of the season, MSU will need to mold this team of inexperience into a classic, hard-nosed Izzo squad, and that may not be as hard as people think.
Izzo says this team has what last year’s team doesn’t—a tight-knit chemistry and lack of injuries. Hobbled by a less than healthy squad, Izzo didn’t have much to choose from, but now, he’s expecting big breakthroughs from some older players.
Look for junior Derrick Nix, who actually started in the Spartans’ 2010’s Final Four game against Butler, to play a bigger role for the team now that he’s finally lightened his load, weight-wise. He could be a surprise defensive player for Izzo, and sophomore center Adreian Payne also bulked up. After an injury setback last season, Payne’s increased strength could help him get in increase in minutes, and Izzo desperately needs him to step up as powerful athletic force at the center spot.
Other than Draymond Green, sophomore Keith Appling is a player the Spartans are excited about. Like his typical Detroit recruits, Appling is a tough competitor, and Izzo says he was and continues to be an offensive rebounder. There are some uncertainties about what position he’ll play, though. If freshman point guard Travis Trice’s learning curve is faster than expected, Appling could play more at the 2 than point.
Learning curve—those two words will carry a heavier meaning more than ever this season. Izzo’s got a few new pieces, and depending on how they fit, some early season questions may get answered quickly.
How will Valparaiso transfer senior Brandon Wood fit into the team’s lineup? He was the Crusaders’ leading scorer last season, and also scored 24 points when the two teams met in East Lansing during the 2009-2010 season. He may be Izzo’s secret weapon and replacement for filling Summers’ hole.
And as for the freshman, a lot of buzz in the Green and White’s camp has been around SF Branden Dawson, a McDonald’s All-American that Izzo claimed may be one of the best offensive rebounders he’s ever recruited. We all know how much Izzo loves comparing current athletes to former MSU greats, and Dawson is no different—he says Dawson reminds him of Jason Richardson and Raymar Morgan. His rebounding skills will be much needed, but he’ll need the stamina to guard on the perimeter in the college game.
Freshman PG Travis Trice, though, may emerge as the true “diaper dandy” star. In the ESPN report, Izzo pegged Trice as a “born leader,” and that’s a crucial characteristic for the team’s potential floor leader. The coaching staff says he may be like another great “Travis” that graced the program—former MSU point guard Travis Walton. Trice so far has demonstrated an intelligence that makes up for his size, and an appetite for breaking down and watching film that is impressive.
With these new pieces, Tom Izzo has a lot of sculpting to do before taking on another very tough schedule, but maybe these lower expectations are good. Izzo is never one to shy away from shocking people, and hopefully this year’s team can shut up naysayers with above-expected game play.Follow paulmbanks