The Michigan State Spartans have started the season 2-2, losing to North Carolina and Duke, both perennial college basketball powerhouses.
This is the first time since 2006 that the Spartans have not been ranked in the Top 25 going into the season.
Coach Tom Izzo and the rest of the team like that their are no high expectations like last year, when they were ranked No. 2 going into the season.
Although this is a team that has not played together for long, with several freshman and a senior transfer, they have a lot of talent and a lot of potential to be a great team.
Here are seven keys to returning to the Top 25.
Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Brandan Kearney are all true freshmen that will be depended on more than regular freshmen in past years.
Branden Dawson has shown so far why he was a McDonald's All-American last year, averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds this season. Although he is only 6’6", he is a monster on the glass and is said to be the best rebounder in the 2011 class.
Trice has so far been a key piece to the Spartans' team. As the backup point guard for Keith Appling, Trice has so far been needed because of Appling getting in to foul trouble, and he has been excellent in that role. This offense has been extremely smooth when he is handling the ball and he has also been shooting well.
Kearney has not been on the court that much but will be relied on more later in the season.
These freshmen have high expectations and their play will be very crucial in this team's success.
The unquestioned leader of Michigan State’s basketball team is Draymond Green.
The senior third year captain knows he is the guy that the rest of the team will look up to. Following Draymond on the leader stand is Keith Appling, the starting point guard.
With this being a young and inexperienced team, Green and Appling will need to be the leaders that the team will need to keep them focused and to remind them to play smart basketball.
If the players follow Green and Appling's lead, they will become a better team.
Draymond Green is known around college basketball as a player who does everything.
He can score, pass, rebound, play defense and, obviously, lead the team. I know he has the mentality to take this team far, but he needs to stop turning the ball over and stay down low in the post.
Yeah, he can make outside shots time to time and dribble up the court well for a big guy, but with his skills he needs to stay down low and make plays from there. That’s where his highest percentage of shots he makes come from and where he can make the most happen with his passing ability.
As long as Green continues to play his game and limit the turnovers and bad fouls, the Spartans will follow his lead to a successful season.
Coming into last season Appling was one of the most hyped Spartans recruits in recent time.
He was one of only two players on the team, Draymond Green being the other, to average over 20 minutes per game last year. Now the starting point guard for Michigan State, Appling has taken over Kalin Lucas’ spot and has big shoes to fill.
He’s the quarterback of the Spartans basketball team and he needs to be ready to run the show.
With Kalin gone, Appling has now become the No. 1 scoring option. To go with his scoring ability, Appling is a very good playmaker and an excellent defender. So far Appling this season has gotten into foul trouble, but if he utilizes his arsenal of skills and stay away from the fouls, he can make the whole team better and take them to the next level.
Center Adreian Payne goes for a dunk
The Spartans will be leaning on junior Derrick Nix and sophomore Adreian Payne to play like the big guys the Spartans recruited in 2009 and 2010. Nix and Payne are the big guys who will be relied on to take care of business down low. The Spartans aren't very deep in the bench with their big guys, so Nix and Payne will have to play smart basketball and stay out of foul trouble.
Payne has great athletic ability for a big guy so it's important he uses that for his post game and rebounding. So far he has yet to to live up to his potential but believes he can put all the pieces together to have a big year.
Nix is in the best shape he has ever been in, losing over 25 pounds in the offseason. Coming in to East Lansing in 2009, Nix weighed in at 314 pounds. His weight is now at 267. Coach Izzo believes the lost weight will help Nix become quicker and more agile and will likely improve his stamina to get up and down the court. So far Nix has not been playing too well this year, missing easy shots down low, committing bad turnovers and dumb fouls.
This is the beginning of the season so there is a lot of time to improve, but if the Spartans look to compete with the top schools this year, they will need their interior players to play at the top of their game.
One of the reasons, if not the biggest reason, that Michigan State’s basketball team was such a big disappointment last year and failed to make it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament, was because lack of chemistry.
Coach Tom Izzo said this year's team has much better chemistry than last year's squad and that is very important for this team to have a successful season. For a team that has not played together for long, chemistry is a very vital piece to make this a good team. There are always teams with very talented players, but no chemistry and that talent only takes them so far.
Chemistry makes everyone better on the floor and will make an inexperienced team such as the Spartans, a very good team.
A vital part of this team being a contender this season will be to limit the turnovers and stay out of foul trouble.
So far this season the team has had both these issues. They have been turning the ball over an average of 17.5 times per game and have been getting in to foul trouble early, which has changed the whole pace of the game.
In Michigan State's two biggest games this year, point guard Keith Appling and center Adreian Payne both got in foul trouble early, which led to having to put two bench players on the court. While having guard Travis Trice and center Derrick Nix in the game for some time is good, the Spartans need their big time players out there for the big games.
By limiting the turnovers and staying out of foul trouble so they don't send the opponents to the free throw line early, Michigan State will have a much better opportunity to win the games.