Tom Izzo is optimistic about the upcoming season, but he is careful not to voice too much enthusiasm.
"I feel sometimes maybe I put too much pressure on my team," Izzo said. "We always shoot to win championships. We still stress that to our team, but how we stress that might change a little bit."
Izzo used to be fond of challenging his team publicly. But defections to the pros combined with tough non-conference schedules have led to early losses and bruised psyches in the past two seasons.
Izzo scraped his teams off the canvas and into contention for the Big Ten championship in each of the past two years. He is hoping he won't have to spend December and January repairing his team emotionally this season.
"I'm excited about this year," he said. "I think we have a chance to kind of regroup a little bit."
A talented, experienced cast of perimeter players and a rapidly improving big man in Paul Davis put the Spartans on the short list of Big Ten favorites.
FRONTCOURTDavis scored 20 or more points on eight occasions last year and figures to make it even more of a habit this season. He has shooting range, face-up skills and quickness on the block. Davis spent the off-season working on strength, endurance and going to his left. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last season but seemed to burn out late in the year. He is hungry to make amends.
Davis needs a tag-team partner who can carry some of the defensive load in the low post and draw attention on offense.
Sophomore center Drew Naymick has the length and timing to be a good defender. He also is developing a nice jump hook. He lacks bulk and confidence but should develop both.
Sophomore Delco Rowley is a big body with a decent turn-around jumper. Off-season ankle surgery and knee rehabilitation have improved his mobility. MSU needs him to emerge.
Freshman Marquise Gray is the most athletic big man of the Izzo era. He has star power. Football player Matt Trannon provided energy at power forward last year and played ahead of Naymick and Rowley. He wants to play again but might see a reduced role. His offense is shaky.
BACKCOURTAlan Anderson returns as the human Swiss Army knife. He has played point guard on offense and power forward on defense and has sacrificed personal stardom for team needs. This year, with the arrival of freshman point guard Drew Neitzel, Anderson might be able to spend more time at his natural wing position.
Sweet-shooting Chris Hill, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, will be a part of Michigan State's point guard committee again. Izzo plans to start him there until Neitzel gets comfortable.
When focused, Kelvin Torbert is one of the best defenders in the league. But he still needs to improve his ball-handling. Torbert saw time at power forward on offense and led the Big Ten in 3-point shooting by firing at an astounding 58.8 percent clip (league games only), capitalizing when big men sagged off to help on Davis. Those numbers are pretty, but Michigan State would rather not go with a small lineup this year.
Shannon Brown started 24 games as a freshman and has added muscle. His live legs could ignite a breakthrough.
Maurice Ager might be the Spartans' best all-around talent. His 22-first half points at Northwestern last year attest to his explosiveness.
Former walk-on Tim Bograkos returns as the guy who will get time if anyone suffers mental lapses, especially on defense.
FINAL ANALYSISIzzo was forced to go with a small lineup last year, and it yielded one of his worst rebounding and defensive teams. The Spartans led the Big Ten in scoring offense, but that's not enough to win a championship.
With a stronger frontcourt, MSU's defense and rebounding will be improved -- and that should get the running game going again.
"I think we will be able to rebound and get the ball out more, and run more, and be able to put more defensive pressure on people," Izzo said.
Davis' yet-to-be-determined tag-team partner and Neitzel's transition to the college game are key factors. If those two question marks yield positive results, the Spartans will be extremely tough. The rest of the puzzle pieces are in place.