Dienhart: How good is Michigan State? Final Four good
NEW YORK, N.Y. — Tom Izzo thought about the statement for a moment: His Michigan State Spartans are the preseason favorites.
“I heard we were picked to win it, but I heard there were like five teams picked second,” Izzo said on media day. “It just goes to show what this league has, and that’s parity.”
Sure, there’s parity. But there’s no doubt Michigan State is head-and-shoulders better than anyone else. Sorry, Purdue. You, too, Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
How good are the Spartans? This may be Izzo’s most gifted team yet. Really. There’s Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Tum Tum Nairn and Josh Langford. And Gavin Schilling is back from injury. Oh, and don’t forget about freshman phenom Jaren Jackson.
But, best of all, unanimous preseason Big Ten player of the year Mile Bridges is back for his sophomore year.
“I much more like the pressure because that’s better for the program, it’s better for the players,” Izzo said. “It means that we’re legitimate contenders for something. I mean, we’ve got a lot of work to do. We needed to get better defensively last year. Moving people around in positions, we’ve got more depth. I’m going to have to do a better job coaching them.”
Could this Michigan State team be the one that finally ends the Big Ten’s NCAA title drought that stretches to 2000? Yep.
“This year the biggest adjustments from a coaching staff is going to be figuring out how to put all these players together,” said Izzo. “Because I have some depth. I have more than I’ve had back to like ’05 or ’09 when I had a lot of depth.
“And both those years were good years. Depth can be helpful, especially this day and age where it seems like more guys are getting hurt. But expectations should be strong from every Spartan fan, our coaches and our players.”
There you have it: Expectations are embraced for a program looking to polish a resume under Izzo that includes seven Final Fours and a national title. On top of that, there also have been seven Big Ten titles, four league tourney crowns and eight Elite Eight appearances.
“It’s a team of a lot of good players,” Izzo said. “We enter the season and we understand there are lofty expectations. There are many goals that we have, some goals that our fans have, some expectations that a lot of people have.”
Izzo has produced a lot of top players, including the likes of Draymond Green, Kalin Lucas, Mateen Cleaves, Adreian Payne, Charlie Bell and Mo Peterson, among others. And, Izzo has used those players to produce a lot of good teams in his 22 years roaming the sideline.
Among his best not to win it all:
2013-14. This squad had players like Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Denzel Valentine and Brandon Dawson. This club looked primed to cut down the nets, but an injury to Appling proved to be an obstacle. MSU’s season ended with an Elite Eight loss to UConn.
2000-01. A year after winning it all, the Spartans looked poised to repeat with a roster that featured the likes of Zach Randolph, Marcus Taylor, Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson. But it lost to Arizona in the Final Four—MSU’s third Final Four in a row–as the Spartans weren’t able to defend their national title.
“We’ve had some good teams over the years,” said Izzo. “We will see how this year’s team takes shape.”
Bridges is the guy who has everyone shaking their green-and-white pom-pons fast. Why not? He was a sensation last season as a freshman, when he averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds. Heck, Bridges may be the best player Izzo has had. He’s a sure-fire lottery pick who would have been a high selection last June had he come out after a strong debut. Nairn knows all about Bridges’ skill-set, as he’ll set him up all season. It’s more the process than the end-game that Nairn wants to cherish in what could be a special 2017-18.
“It’s not that we have to, it’s that we get to,” Nairn Jr. said. “It’s not you’ve got to go to practice or you’ve got to go to weights. You get to go to practice and you get to go to weights. A lot of people don’t have that same opportunity and would die to be in your position. I think if you start looking at it as you know, I get to do this, you have more appreciation for it and that’s why I’m here. Everybody’s not alike, and everybody has different strengths and certain strengths. My strength is appreciating every single day that I get to see. I just want the guys to know that they can do that same thing.”
This MSU club has the type of wingspan and length that should wreak havoc on the defensive end of the court. Tight defense always is a trait of Izzo’s team. And this year’s club has an abundance of lanky athletes who will clamp down on shooters and passing lanes.
Add it all up, and there’s really nothing not to like about Izzo’s loaded team.
“I told them that, ‘You better embrace it.’ Not all the time do you get it. Really if you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t have come here. I mean, we’ve proven over the years now enough times that we’re a quality team, we’ve been ranked in the top 10 a lot more than we haven’t in the last 15 years. Hopefully that’s why you came. You came for that.”