Tom Izzo is 10-1, searching for his seventh Final Four since 1999.
Perching at No. 5 in the latest Associated Press poll, the Michigan State Spartans are exactly where most thought they'd be at this time of year.
Losing Derrick Nix, a tyrant in the paint, hurts Tom Izzo's team, which has experienced a decline in rebounding and physicality since the Detroit big man left the program.
However, talent remains plentiful for Izzo, who has Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne spurring a national-title worthy club.
Michigan State is what it should be. But is it what it could be?
We'll examine some of the misconceptions that may have been present during the preseason, along with gauging the Spartans vs. common expectations, such as owning the glass and establishing authority in the post.
Kenny Kaminski (right) has played just 29 minutes in 2013.
He's 6'8", 235 pounds and can shoot out the lights.
But he can't stay eligible, nor can he find a home on Izzo's good side.
Kenny Kaminski's debut has been marred by academic and personal issues. After redshirting this past year due to a shoulder injury, he was expected to jump right into the mix this season and give the Spartans a physical shooter.
He's played just four games.
Izzo's waited long enough for Kaminski, who's in danger of falling by the wayside if he doesn't up his commitment to his team. Izzo could replace him within the next two years, leaving the once-promising Ohioan to occupy the bench.
Gavin Schilling is making positive strides. MSU needs him to do more in Matt Costello's absence.
The word on Gavin Schilling during the offseason was "progress." Izzo raved about the freshman's capacity to learn and ability to evolve into a college player.
So far, Schilling looks to be behind the curve. There's an Izzo forward somewhere in Schilling, who was easily pushed around by North Carolina and Texas defenders/rebounders.
At 6'9" and 240 pounds, Schilling is far from a runt; he needs to bulk up and toughen up if he's going to be an anchor for a team renowned for its rough style. He showed signs of life Dec. 21 with five rebounds and four points during the Spartans' 92-78 victory over the Longhorns.
He has a ways to go. But those 12 minutes in Austin were a decent start, even if it took him 10 games to do it.
MSU freshman Gavin Schilling took huge strides in Saturday's win over Texas: http://t.co/xQRhu8v4Po— GreenandWhite.com (@LSJGreenWhite) December 22, 2013
Adreian Payne averages eight rebounds per game, good for No. 5 in the B1G.
A simple observation of the Spartans reveals one thing: They're nowhere near the level of past Izzo teams in terms of rebounding.
In fact, this year's team has to be one of the softest offensive rebounding clubs in years, if not ever, for Izzo. Conversely, it's almost as bad on the defensive end, despite averaging nearly 30 per game.
Energy is absent. So is Nix. There may be a connection. Nix gave plenty but took none. This year's Spartans take too much and don't dish out enough.
|Offensive Rebounding (Big Ten Rank)||Defensive Rebounding|
|11 RPG (7)||29.1 RPG (3)|
|Offensive Rebounding Percentage||Defensive Rebounding Percentage|
|.313 (8)||.722 (5)|
The Year of Gary Harris has been put on hold.
Over the summer, Gary Harris was named the top shooting guard in college by the Sporting News. He's been the subject of NBA lottery talks since the completion of his freshman year, in which he averaged slightly more than 12 points per game and drilled Memphis for 23 during March Madness.
And he did all of that while nursing a bad shoulder.
Now a sophomore, Harris battles an ankle injury that won't cooperate. Tweaked in the preseason, the ankle has come back to bite Izzo's potential All-American. But things could be worse, Harris' ankle could have waited to rear its ugly head much later in the season.
Like in March.
Appearing in eight games, Harris is Izzo's second-leading scorer, averaging 17.8 points per night. The 2013-14 season was supposed to be The Year of Gary Harris—and it will be, it's just delayed.
Denzel Valentine is an X-factor, too.
When on full-tilt, Branden Dawson is among the most athletic wings in the nation. With spurts from the junior, Michigan State would be untouchable.
Or so most thought.
As the season progresses, Denzel Valentine appears to be more of the X-factor than Dawson, who's been on the end of a few beauties from Valentine, a sophomore out of Lansing Sexton.
Make no mistake, Dawson is the guy who can add that "it" to Izzo's lineup. But Valentine has been slept on for too long, and he's certainly worthy of mention as a spark plug. At 6'5" and 225 pounds, Valentine can play the big point guard spot, man the 2 and even play small forward.
He's versatile, and so is his stat line. Nothing too major, just great efforts for 25.9 minutes per game. And maybe he needs to shoot more. Michigan State is unbeaten when he lets off at least five attempts. But then again, Michigan State's only lost once, so that's not really a statistical trend, just something interesting to monitor as the season rolls.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81