|Tom Izzo's Spartans aren't in the Top 25, but the coach says 'I really like my guys.' (US Presswire)|
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Tom Izzo's team wasn't supposed to look this way.
Michigan State's head coach envisioned a veteran backcourt that included veteran Korie Lucious, a frontcourt that featured another experienced guy in Delvon Roe.
Instead, Izzo has a team full of questions and one that isn't in the AP Preseason Top 25 for the second time since winning the national title in 2000.
Yet he's smiling. A ton.
In fact, Izzo appears far more at peace with this group than the one that drove him crazy during last season's disappointing 19-15 campaign that concluded with a loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"Last year was tough," Izzo admits. "Really tough."
"All I'd known before was Big Ten championships and Final Fours," added senior leader Draymond Green. "It was brutal."
Lucious was booted from school in the middle of last season and followed ex-teammate Chris Allen, who was kicked out just prior to the start of the year, to Iowa State.
Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, two heralded local recruits who entered East Lansing four years prior with lofty expectations, left school without many fans truly caring about their departures.
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This was a similar group that helped Michigan State make a pair of Final Four appearances in 2009 and '10. However, it culminated in a disappointing season in 2011 that left Izzo frustrated throughout.
Now Izzo looks down the court and sees question marks everywhere.
Can sophomore Keith Appling make the transition from off-guard to the point guard spot?
Can Derrick Nix, who has transformed his body in the offseason, make an impact in the middle and help soften the blow of losing Roe -- who retired in the offseason because of recurring knee injuries.
Can the Draymond Green, who will move back to his natural power forward spot, carry this team of unproven guys? He's the lone returnee who averaged more than 6.5 points.
Can talented freshman wing Branden Dawson make a rapid adjustment to the college ranks?
Izzo's situation became so dire with the losses of Allen and Lucious that he was forced to take Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood -- who is eligible for only one season and allowed to play immediately.
Wood hasn't just joined the team as a role guy, either. He's penciled in as the team's starting shooting guard.
"I like my team," Izzo said. "I really like my guys."
That's clear when you watch an Izzo practice these days. Sure, he's still fiery and he'll get into his players.
But that smile is back.
It's difficult to say whether this team will enjoy more success than the one a year ago, but one thing is certain: Izzo will enjoy coaching this one.
"We have a group of guys that everyone is counting out," Green said. "We were ranked second, third and second in the country my first three years. It's different, but I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Green is the clear-cut leader now and the young guys appear likely to follow -- unlike a year ago when Lucas and Summers tried to lead but weren't up to the task.
"It was the perfect storm last year, a little bit of everything," Green said. "We had injuries and the chemistry wasn't very good. The chemistry is a lot better this year."
Appling is talented enough to be the starting point guard for a Top 25 team and Nix looks like a completely different player. While Wood has never done it consistently against the big boys, he's had big games.
He put up 30 against North Carolina as a sophomore, averaged 20.5 points in two games against Purdue over the past two seasons and scored 24 against his current team -- Michigan State.
Then there's skilled 6-foot-10 sophomore Adreian Payne, who is arguably the most talented player on the team. He's progressed, but Izzo and the staff are still waiting for the day when he becomes a dominant force. Nix has given up Little Caesar's pizza and juice -- and now he'll be able to get up and down the court and also score in the low post.
There are guys who accept their roles as well. Redshirt freshman Russell Byrd can make shots from deep and true freshman Travis Trice gives the Spartans a true floor leader and also a back-up plan in case Appling is forced to slide back to the two-guard spot.
"We have questions about everyone," Green admitted. "Including me. People want to know whether I can carry the team. "But we're not going to go out there and prove it individually."
And that's what has Izzo smiling.