Don't expect Izzo to relax even as the favorite for next year's conference title.
Check your inhibitions at the door. Regardless of roster turnover, off-the-court issues, injuries or inexperience, the Michigan State Spartans will be competitive.
The Spartans, who rarely engender many preseason accolades, now sit coolly among the AP’s Top 5 teams.
Rankings are admittedly subjective and arbitrary, but one would assume that losing Draymond Green, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year last season, would’ve taken a toll on this year’s Spartans. And yet, riding a freshman and a forward with a reconstructed knee, here they are at 11-2, tied atop the conference with Indiana.
The Spartans, set to host arguably their biggest game of the season (not to be mistaken with last week’s “biggest game of the season”), control their own destiny, again.
A win over Indiana Tuesday night gives the Spartans the inside edge to the conference title, which would mark Tom Izzo’s fourth Big Ten title in five seasons.
The top of college basketball’s landscape has been particularly slippery this season. Not for Izzo’s ice skaters, though. Two of the Spartans’ losses came on the road to the top two teams in the country, and another loss was in a hangar in Ramstein, Germany in their first game.
Mindful of the declaratives, Izzo’s track record is as consistent as they come, partially explaining why the Spartans will be the favorite next season.
As CBS' Jeff Borzello tweeted:
Look at Tom Izzo slow-playing his hand all season. And then boom, suddenly has a Straight Flush in mid-February. EVERY YEAR.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) February 13, 2013
Indiana is set to lose a number of players to the NBA draft, and the same goes for Michigan. Ohio State's best scorer is all but gone to the league as well. That leaves Wisconsin as the only other elite Big Ten team with the potential to knock off the Spartans.
But Wisconsin's talent never overwhelms (much like Izzo's) and the Badgers will lose a ton of size in graduating forwards Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren. So that leaves Michigan State as the favorite for next year's Big Ten title.
Izzo's decorated past is hardly the primary reason, though.
The only outgoing senior is Derrick Nix, the Spartans' 270-pound trunk in the middle. Nix's size will be difficult to replace, but Matt Costello (6'9'' freshman) and Alex Gauna (6'9'' sophomore) have shown promising spurts.
In Michigan State’s resounding win over Michigan last week, Costello had eight points and six rebounds, although the game was already out of hand.
Perhaps the best indication of the Spartans’ further success is that Keith Appling and Branden Dawson aren’t exactly NBA-ready yet, but they will be. Their chemistry is on full display in this alley oop against Illinois.
Appling, a junior, has grown into a veteran leader under Izzo and has become a much more effective scorer, especially in crunch time. His defense is excellent and the fact that next year will be his third year as a starter could pay massive dividends for the Spartans.
Dawson’s body is already NBA-ready, but he hasn’t become as consistent a scorer as scouts need him to be to justify taking him in the first round. He’s also just one year removed from tearing his ACL late last season and hasn't had a full offseason to improve. His 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds are impressive considering the context.
Forward Adreian Payne has improved markedly over the past three years in East Lansing, and with Nix gone, the 6'10'' junior figures to haul in at least eight rebounds a game. Payne is another guy, based off his size, that has a chance to play at the next level.
Finally, to quote legendary former Marquette coach Al McGuire, “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.”
This couldn’t be more true about the Spartans’ heralded freshman shooting guard Gary Harris. The former McDonald’s All-American is likely to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors due to his smooth three-point stroke.
Harris leads the Big Ten in conference play with 35 three-pointers while shooting 53 percent, second only to Indiana’s Christian Watford. The other freshman guard, Denzel Valentine, has seen ample time due to injuries and responded accordingly. Valentine has good rebounding instincts for a guard and already has the vision of an upperclassman.
Izzo has done a marvelous job with this year’s squad, blending inexperience with a talented frontcourt, but this year’s version is just the foundation of next year’s team.
With so much returning talent, the Spartans can all but forget about flying below the radar next season.