Izzo Finds Plenty of Reasons to Be Optimistic
After flirting with visions of a national championship, Tom Izzo needs to make up for the departure of NBA talent by blending a strong nucleus of proven players with some promising newcomers. (This could be a graphic element in layout, I guess)
Last season, MSU came close to competing for its third national men’s basketball title. Many pundits, and even President Barack Obama, picked the Spartans to win it all. What no one could foresee were the injuries to key players—notably NBA draftees Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, who missed several games, and Keith Appling, whose early-season performance was less than stellar.
“I thought we had a chance to win the national championship—and we did,” have a chance, says head coach Tom Izzo, now in his 20th season. “It was just a shame we had so many injuries. The only other times I felt this strongly about our chances were in 2000 and 2001.”
Unlike 2001, however—when MSU lost many key players to graduation and early entry to the NBA—the Spartans this coming season have a strong nucleus of proven players and Izzo is also looking forward to the newcomers.
“Denzel Valentine and (wing) Branden Dawson are budding stars,” says Izzo. “People are going to be surprised by how much Dawson has improved his shot. He has worked his butt off. Meanwhile, (point guard) Travis Trice is injury free and had a great summer. Don’t forget last year (center) Matt Costello was a starter until he got mononucleosis. So we lost Payne, ‘AP,’ and Gary Harris, and we lost Appling. But with this season’s core players back on the court we’ll be in a better position than we were after our 2001 season.”
MSU men’s basketball success in 2014-15 will hinge on how well two sophomores, pivot Gavin Schilling and wing Alvin Ellis, have improved. MSU hopes guard Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State, is granted immediate eligibility.
“Forbes is the best pure shooter we’ve had in a long time,” Izzo says. The guard also happens to be a former Lansing high school teammate of Valentine’s. “Forbes can make a difference right away.”
Izzo says he’s also optimistic about his incoming freshmen. “Our (wing) Javon Bess, I like him a lot,” the coach says. “I think power forward Marvin Clark is going to play an important role for us. And point guard Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr.—you gotta come and watch him practice. He’s fun, gets a lot done, he listens, he’s coachable, he’s energetic—I would say he’s a Cleaves’-plus in this area,” Izzo says, referring to Mateen Cleaves, the player to led MSU’s basketball team to the NCAA title in 2000.
Izzo says he’s also happy with this year’s intangibles. “Last year, the team enjoyed great camaraderie. But this year, with co-captains Valentine and Trice, we have great leadership,” he says.
And this year’s squad is likely to be a “faster, more athletic, smaller” team. “There are question marks,” Izzo notes. “Do we have enough scorers? Can they get better on defense? Can the young guys handle the schedule early, when we play Duke, or Notre Dame and possibly Kansas?
“I love the progress we made this summer,” he says. “How it all comes together? We’ll find out.”
MSU will face one of the most brutal schedules in the nation, with early contests against a couple of Top Ten foes and a Big Ten schedule that includes a Top Five team in Wisconsin and several other good and improved teams.
Izzo says he appreciates that the season opens with a trip to the U.S. Naval Academy. “We want to maintain our practice of honoring our military every season.
“I’m excited about this team, even though the expectations of some are not high,” says Izzo, who is assisted by coaches Duane Stephens, Dane Fife and Mike Garland.