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Postcard from Michigan State

The Spartans will be deeper, tougher and a contender

Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2007 12:41PM; Updated: Wednesday October 24, 2007 12:41PM
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By playing fewer minutes, coach Tom Izzo hopes senior guard Drew Neitzel will be an even more dangerous scorer.
By playing fewer minutes, coach Tom Izzo hopes senior guard Drew Neitzel will be an even more dangerous scorer.
Bob Rosato/SI
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• LUKE WINN: Postcard from N.C. State

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Toward the end of a grueling two-and-a-half-hour practice last week, Drew Neitzel, Michigan State's senior guard, found himself matched up against 6-foot freshman Kalin Lucas. Operating from the left wing, Neitzel drove on Lucas with his left hand, spun to his right, and then took two dribbles toward the three-point line. Having created a little space, Neitzel quickly turned back to his left and drained a feathery 15-foot jump shot over Lucas' outstretched hand. In his haste to answer the bell, Lucas fumbled the ensuing inbounds pass and then flopped to the floor in a futile effort to save the ball from going out of bounds.

Coach Tom Izzo had been getting increasingly agitated at his team's sloppiness with the ball, so he gathered his players around him for yet another lecture on the evils of turnovers. But whatever Izzo tried to say was drowned out by the voice of his senior captain. "Pick his shorts up!" Neitzel woofed as he pointed at Lucas. "Somebody get his shorts!"

A few hours later, Izzo was sipping on a Coke at the Spartan Hall of Fame Cafe on Lake Lansing Street, and he laughed as he recalled the sequence. "I kind of liked that because Drew doesn't have a lot of that in him," Izzo said. "I'll tell you what, our practices are more difficult this year because we're going against better people. We just have more guys."

After watching the Spartans work out in the Breslin Center, that is the overriding impression I came away with: They have more guys. A year ago, Michigan State was reeling after losing its veteran core of Alan Anderson, Shannon Brown, Paul Davis and Maurice Ager. Of Izzo's three freshmen, only one, 6-7 forward Raymar Morgan, was ready to make an impact -- and he missed seven games because of injury. That left Izzo with a rotation of just six players at times. As a result, Michigan State had to play a slow tempo.

It speaks volumes about Izzo's ability that the Spartans still managed to fashion a 23-12 record before losing in the NCAA second round to North Carolina. Now, however, they're loaded. All five starters are back, and Izzo has brought in three freshmen who are capable of cracking the rotation. That means he's prepared to turn his guys loose and get back to the running style that defined his Final Four teams of 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2005.

No wonder the Spartans are near the top of most preseason rankings. "I like the higher expectations," Izzo told me. "Last year, we had none. That's good for one year, but you don't want a steady diet of that."

Running on every possession, as Izzo wants to do, requires more than just a deep rotation. You also need speed and athleticism, and that is where the freshmen will have the biggest impact. Lucas is an absolute jet with the ball. He has the makings of the quintessential lift off the bench (provided he keeps his shorts off the floor on D). Chris Allen, a 6-3 guard from Lawrenceville, Ga., is a knockdown jump shooter. He has one of those pure strokes that makes you think the ball is going in every time it leaves his hand. And 6-4 Detroit native Durrell Summers is the most dynamic of the three. He'll finish a lot of fast breaks, though he was Izzo's whipping boy during defensive drills on the day I was there. At one point Izzo sardonically asked him, "Did you play a one-man zone in high school? What was it, a box-and-nothing?"

Much of Izzo's frustration in practice was directed at his big men. That's not surprising considering this is the Spartans' most obvious area of weakness. From where I was sitting on the sideline, it was actually pretty hilarious watching Izzo get contorted over and over again in exasperation at 7-foot sophomore Tom Herzog, who was a straight-A student in high school, and 6-10 Drew Naymick, a fifth-year senior who has already graduated and is pursuing a PhD in finance. "You guys are a couple of four-point dummies!" Izzo cracked in reference to the duo's grade-point average. "I wish I had more one-point players out here."

Still, Izzo's was not the loudest voice at practice. That belonged to Travis Walton, a 6-2 junior who is co-captain of this team for the second straight year. I've seen a lot of practices over the years, but I don't believe I've ever seen a player take a bolder leadership role than the one Walton assumed. He told me afterwards that he wants to be a coach when he's through playing, but I'd say that's pretty much what he is now.

At one point, Walton, who is one of the best defenders in the country, stopped a drill himself so he could demonstrate to the freshmen how to properly guard a dribbler. ("You slide, baby, you slide!") When 6-11 junior Idong Ibok came onto the floor a little too casually for Walton's taste, Walton barked, "I.D., don't f------walk out here. Run!" He kept up the verbal barrage all through practice, but it seemed to me the players tolerated it because nobody works harder than Walton does.

In this regard, Walton has had a positive effect on Neitzel, who has a quiet nature but has become a more vocal leader since the start of last season. Like every team in college basketball, the Spartans are young in places, but the fact that they are getting their best leadership from their starting point guard (Walton) and best player (Neitzel) may be their biggest asset. As Izzo put it, "A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team."

Leadership, athleticism, depth, coaching -- all the elements are in place to justify the high expectations at Michigan State. As long as this team stays healthy, it has an excellent chance to make the rest of the Big Ten turn green with envy.

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