After reaching the NCAA championship game last April, Michigan State knew it would begin this season with high expectations. What it wasn't prepared for was how tough it would be just to keep the team healthy the last few weeks.
The second-ranked Spartans open their season at home against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night, likely without senior Raymar Morgan.
Michigan State made an emotional run to the national title game in April, but despite playing at Detroit in front of a friendly crowd, the Spartans lost 89-72 to North Carolina.
Having put that disappointment behind them, the Spartans start this season with a different kind of pressure - the kind that comes from very lofty expectations.
One of the biggest reasons for optimism in East Lansing is the return of Kalin Lucas, who averaged 14.7 points and 4.6 assists last season and is the reigning Big Ten player of the year. Michigan State also brings back the bulk of last year's leading scorers, making it a favorite to win a second straight conference championship and take another shot at an NCAA title.
While depth won't be a problem, the big concern is how healthy a lineup the Spartans are starting the season with. Morgan (ankle) and Chris Allen (groin) sat out both exhibition games, while Delvon Roe didn't play in the preseason finale after being diagnosed with a concussion. In the last exhibition game on Monday, Durrell Summers suffered an eye injury.
Morgan's severely sprained ankle, which he suffered in late October, will most likely keep him out of the opener, but he is hoping to play next week against Gonzaga. The other three injured players have been cleared to play Friday, according to coach Tom Izzo.
Izzo admits that with all the injuries, he is concerned about the team's chemistry. While Lucas and Morgan were expected to be fixtures in the lineup, the other three positions he planned on rotating. Izzo said he wasn't able to get his top seven on the floor at the same time in the first 17 practices because of injuries.
"It's been a frustrating month for me," Izzo said, "and when you have high expectations you hope that doesn't happen. ... That many players (being injured) has been an oddity. I don't think in all my years here I've had that many missing games. ... It's been hard to judge where you are."
Michigan State was already entering the season with question marks even before the rash of injuries. The Spartans are looking to fill the holes left by the departures of center Goran Suton as well as Travis Walton, the conference's defensive player of the year. Freshman centers Garrick Sherman and Derrick Nix are two of the leading contenders to fill Sutton's spot.
Morgan, though, was being counted on to fill the leadership void. The senior was coming off a disappointing season and was eager to get back on the court. In 2008-09, he struggled with injuries and was diagnosed with mononucleosis in February, which helped lead to a big drop in his production. After averaging 15.2 points in his first 16 games, he averaged only 6.1 over his next 19. He scored four points on two field-goal attempts in 19 minutes against North Carolina.
He is eager to make amends, though.
"A lot is expected, but I can handle it," Morgan said. "This is why I came here."
The Spartans don't have much time to figure things out. Besides Gonzaga, they'll also face North Carolina, Florida and Texas during a very challenging non-conference schedule.
They'll start, however, with what should be a favorable matchup against Florida Gulf Coast, which enters its third season as a member of Division I.
The Eagles return three starters from a team that went 11-20, including leading-scorer Reed Barker, who averaged 13.4 points last season. The other key return is Reggie Chambers, who averaged 8.6 points and was named to the Atlantic Sun all-freshman team last season.
Florida Gulf Coast has lost 19 consecutive road games, three coming against ranked opponents. The Eagles, who have never faced Michigan State, are 0-5 against Top 25 teams since the start of the 2006-07 season.