Skip to content

Rebuilding at Michigan State? Don’t tell Tom Izzo

Nov 9, 2011, 11:20 AM EDT

spt-111109-izzo AP

It’s easy to call this a rebuilding season for Michigan State.

After all, the program graduated two high-profile players after last season: Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers played prominent roles for four seasons in East Lansing and led the Spartans to two Final Fours. Not only are they gone this season, but MSU fell far short of expectations last year—the team was favored to contend for a national championship and instead barely qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Considering that the 2011-12 Spartans still carry the weight of last season’s disappointment, and that they don’t have Lucas and Summers to lead them, Michigan State is likely to take a step back, right?

Tom Izzo doesn’t agree. He knows this season’s rotation isn’t yet proven, but he likes the amount of talent and depth on hand. He also thinks that this team will benefit from strong chemistry and leadership—Mateen Cleaves-like leadership, in fact, and while that comparison puts plenty of pressure on senior forward Draymond Green, it also speaks to how highly Izzo thinks of Green.

You get the sense that Izzo likes this team, and that he thinks if some things break his way this season might not just exceed fans’ tempered expectations—it could shatter them. Below, Izzo explains why this could be a special and surprising season in East Lansing.

Q: What’s your sense of your team heading into this season? What’s possible for this group?

Tom Izzo: We’ve got a lot of unknowns. I like the unknowns. Is [Derrick] Nix going to keep the weight off? He looks great right now. Adreian Payne is someone we think is going to have a chance to be one of the better big men we’ve had. He had shoulder surgery at the end of high school and missed six or seven months [before his freshman season], and so this will really be like his first year. Russell Byrd, a guy who would be one of our best shooters, he had a stress fracture [before his freshman season in 2010-11] that just never healed in 14 months, but now it looks like it’s healed. So I’m excited, but all those things are question marks.

I think we’ve got a lot of positives. We’ve got [freshman] Branden Dawson, who I think has got a chance to be a star. I think we’ve got a couple of great players in [Keith] Appling and Dawson and Payne, and Draymond Green, Up front we also have and Nix and Alex Gauna.

[In the backcourt], we brought a transfer in, Brandon Wood [from Valparaiso], who I think is going to help us. And I think [freshman point guard] Travis Trice will help us immediately.

So I think we’ve got depth. It’s just not depth that I’m [confident] of, because so many of those guys are coming off of either injures or a redshirt, or the one transfer. So you don’t quite sleep as good, especially with the schedule we’ve got.

But it’s exciting because I think our team chemistry is even better [than in 2010-11], and I think we’ve worked awfully hard in the off-season. I’m really excited for all the chances and opportunities we’ve got. We’ve had teams like this in the past that people would write off, and then later we’re right in there as contenders, and we’ve done very well in those years. I’m hoping this will be one of those teams.

Q: Is Draymond Green the kind of leader who can help propel this team to have one of those special seasons?

Tom Izzo: Yeah, I think he’s going to be that leader—the kind of leader that Travis Walton was in 2009 when we went to the Final Four with a team that nobody thought could do it. And even though it’s hard to match what Cleaves did back in 2000, I think Green has a chance to be that kind of leader.

Last year, we had some good players, but we just didn’t have the right chemistry, I didn’t feel, and we didn’t have the leadership that I think you need. When you win 19 or 20 games, you make the NCAA Tournament. But what I’m talking about is when you make deep runs in the Tournament—you need big-time leadership for that. And I think with Green we’ve got a big-time leader.

Q: Mateen Cleaves was a transcendent leader for a couple of seasons; it’s a little surprising to hear you say you had a leadership void last season, considering you think so highly of Green’s leadership—and he was a junior on that team. Do you think Green didn’t assert himself out of deference to last season’s seniors? 

Tom Izzo: I think so. We had a weird deal with [Kalin] Lucas and [Durrell] Summers. Lucas had an Achilles’ injury, and he really missed six months. It took up until January for him to really get back on track with that Achilles. So for a lot of last season—and this is not to make excuses—but I think there were legitimate reasons why we never seemed in sync. Some of it was our fault—some of it was chemistry and some of it was performance—but some of it was also due to injuries and situations that we had no control over.

Put that together and you have a season that none of us feel good about. But when you have a bad season and you still win almost 20 games and you go the NCAA Tournament, that’s not all bad, either.

Q: One last question about the Big Ten newbie. What do you expect from Nebraska this season? How difficult will it be for Nebraska to adjust to the Big Ten? 

Tom Izzo: I think it’s going to be hard on them and hard on us. [Doc Sadler] is a very, very good coach, and nobody in our league has been [to Lincoln recently]. I was there a lot of years ago, but it’s never easy to do that—to go into a new environment, a new situation.

I think [Sadler] is a very good coach, and he thinks he’s going to have a decent team. Everybody looks at Nebraska and just thinks about football, but Doc has done a great job for them down there, and he’s tough to play against.

He’s a very defensive-minded coach. [Because of Nebraska’s defense], you can play good and win by five, play great and win by six, or play average and lose. And that’s a problem.

So yeah, they’re going to have an adjustment—but so are we.

Steve Hendershot is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @stevehendershot

Related posts:

Latest Posts
  1. Florida guard continues to work towards full recovery from leg injury

    Aug 20, 2014, 10:46 PM EDT

    Southern v Florida Southern v Florida

    Redshirting helped Eli Carter as he looks to recover from a broken leg suffered in 2013, but he still isn’t at the level he was prior to the injury.

  2. Reports: Former Memphis center to enroll at Tennessee

    Aug 20, 2014, 9:59 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    According to reports Dominic Woodson will be enrolling at Tennessee in time for the start of classes Thursday.

  3. Florida State lands its first 2015 verbal commitment

    Aug 20, 2014, 9:16 PM EDT

    D1Circuit/Nike Basketball D1Circuit/Nike Basketball

    Four-star shooting guard Terance Mann picked Florida State over Arizona State, Boston College, Indiana, Marquette and Rhode Island.

  4. Assigned Reading: The rise and fall of Curtis Malone

    Aug 20, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT

    dc-assault.org dc-assault.org

    Curtis Malone is serving a 100-month sentence after pleading guilty to being a part of a drug ring that brought in $80,000 in profits per month.

  5. Oregon State freshman hospitalized after collapsing during workout Tuesday

    Aug 20, 2014, 6:42 PM EDT

    Jesse Skoubo/Corvallis Gazette-Times Jesse Skoubo/Corvallis Gazette-Times

    A report stated that a blood clot in Chai Baker’s leg may have resulted in his collapsing during a workout on Tuesday.

  6. Report: Former UNLV guard transfers to UT Martin

    Aug 20, 2014, 5:38 PM EDT

    Deville Smith, Skylar Spencer AP

    Deville Smith averaged 9.7 points and 2.7 assists in 32 games last season, making 18 starts.

  7. Mixtape for Duke-bound guard Luke Kennard (VIDEO)

    Aug 20, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT

    Luke Kennard AP

    Kennard is the No. 19 recruit in the Rivals top 150.

  8. New addition to Michigan State program granted immediate eligibility

    Aug 20, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    Bryn Forbes, Andrew Harrison AP

    Bryn Forbes averaged 15.6 points per game last season, shooting 43.4% from the field and 42.4% from three-point range.

  9. Expectations have changed for Nebraska after surprise run to 2014 NCAA tournament

    Aug 20, 2014, 3:09 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    How can Nebraska build on their surprising, successful 2013-2014 season?

  10. Report: College star won’t suit up for Dominican Republic in World Cup

    Aug 20, 2014, 2:01 PM EDT

    Karl Towns AP

    Kentucky made the decision not to allow one of their stars to head to Spain for two weeks while they’re supposed to be in class.

  11. Nebraska hires new graduate manager, trolls Kansas in the process?

    Aug 20, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Think Jayhawk fans remember the name Ali Farokhmanesh?

  12. Memphis lands a key transfer to boost their back court experience

    Aug 20, 2014, 12:07 PM EDT

    SEC Basketball Tournament: Arkansas v Vanderbilt Getty Images

    The Tigers have zero minutes of experience in their back court.

  13. Indiana lands a final piece in their 2014 recruiting class

    Aug 20, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT

    Tom Crean AP

    Indiana now has six commitments in the Class of 2014.

  14. Oakland head coach Greg Kampe with a unique #icebucketchallenge (VIDEO)

    Aug 20, 2014, 10:24 AM EDT

    Greg Kampe AP

    Kampe over came his fear of heights but still got hit with ice water.

  15. The Ray Kasongo saga takes another turn on Wednesday

    Aug 19, 2014, 9:55 PM EDT

    kasongo

    Ray Kasongo was denied admission from Oregon on July 30, reopening his recruitment.

  16. Northern Illinois unveils its new basketball floor (PHOTO)

    Aug 19, 2014, 8:10 PM EDT

    Twitter/NIUAthletics Twitter/NIUAthletics

    This new court design is interesting to say the least.

  17. Report: Wichita State to play in early season tournaments in 2015, 2016, 2017

    Aug 19, 2014, 7:59 PM EDT

    AP AP

    Take a look at what tournaments the Shockers will appear in over the next few years.

  18. Four-star 2015 guard Jimmy Whitt commits to Arkansas

    Aug 19, 2014, 6:07 PM EDT

    Under Armour Under Armour

    Jimmy Whitt is ranked just outside the top 50 in the Class of 2015.