Michigan State basketball opened practice Friday afternoon with lofty billing from around the country.
The Spartans are pegged by many news organizations and experts to be among the top teams in the country – with some placing them as No. 1 preseason.
Coach Tom Izzo said he welcomes the expectations.
”I’m excited about it,” he said. “I think in the last 15 years we’ve been a top 20 program, top 15 program a lot, top 10 enough, but there is a difference when you’re top 5. Like I said though, within a couple years I’ve seen be number 1 and be out in the first round and be number 1 and be to a Final Four.
”I hope the players are as smart as I am in that respect and know it’s just a ranking, like everything else. I think we deserve to be a highly ranked team, but I think there’s a lot of other teams that do too. So hopefully that ranking, we can live up to those expectations.”
While Izzo found excitement in expectations, he has concern in the leadership on a team that struggled to find consistent leaders since the graduation of Draymond Green.
”I’m pleased with the chemistry,” he said. “I’m still on question with the leadership. It’s been an ongoing thing. It’s an ongoing program with a lot of teams. We just met for an hour about it. … Maybe I’m looking for the Cleaves, the Waltons, the Draymonds, the vocal guys that really get after it, and maybe I gotta look for the guy that’s respected the most by them and in some way, not lead by example cause I hate that term, but find a way to get guys to do things the right way in a different way, maybe not as boisterous. So we’re looking at that too.”
Izzo said a decision on captains could come in the next week or two and said he is looking to find time to sit down with players and talk about leadership.
”We’re gonna be talking to them a little bit more, talking to our players a little bit more and trying to make this a bigger deal than normal,” he said. “I still believe without one, you’re in trouble and I think it’s got to be one or two guys. Not just a group like I’ve tried in the past.”
In making the decision on captains, Izzo said it will be made by players and coaches.
”The players are always going to have the most input, but I won’t say it’ll be just players – it’s gonna be all of us,” Izzo said. “It’s gonna be the program. The program’s gonna decide who the captains are.”
The Spartans return two of last year’s captains in Keith Appling and Russell Byrd, but Izzo said he hasn’t seen Appling develop as leader – but he has in other ways this summer.
”I didn’t see as much in that area,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot this summer as far as the other areas of Keith, that I’ve been really excited about impressed with. And I’ve got to realize, too, to some guys it’s a burden. To some guys it’s a pleasure.”
One thing is clear for Izzo in seeking leadership: He wants to make being a captain at Michigan State a thrill for a player.
“I just went up to a little deal for (former MSU football player) Buck Nystrom that they had last weekend and he made a statement there that kind of hit me as hard as anything’s hit me,” Izzo said. “He said of all the things he’s done – he’s been voted the best offensive line coach, he’s been an Academic All-American, he’s been through five national championships as a player and as an assistant coach – the greatest thrill of his life was being named captain at Michigan State University.
”I think somehow I’ve got to get back where that is … I mean, Travis Walton, Draymond Green, that meant the world to them. And it’s been a little bit of a struggle on that. If there is an area of question mark, but I bet you if everybody was honest about it, it’d be a question mark on a lot of teams.”