Tom Izzo, Spartans embrace pressure of preseason favorite status
East Lansing — While most of Michigan State’s basketball players have signed off of social media for the foreseeable future, that doesn’t mean the Spartans are unaware of the expectations being placed on them heading into the 2019-20 season.
The official preseason rankings haven’t come out, but many early publications have already declared Michigan State as the best team in the nation and the favorite to win the national championship.
And quite frankly, they’re good with it. In fact, nobody is shying away from the spotlight.
“Absolutely,” junior forward Xavier Tillman said when asked if Michigan State is embracing the high expectations. “We know that a lot of people have us ranked No. 1, so we have to hold ourselves to that standard every time we step on the floor for a workout, for a lift, for a practice, everybody has to be on high standards, so they can go as hard as they can every day.”
The Spartans, who won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships last season before beating national title favorite Duke to reach the Final Four, are clearly taking their cues from their coach.
Tom Izzo’s been in this position before, or at least close to it. Michigan State was ranked preseason No. 2 two seasons ago when Miles Bridges returned for a second year and was joined by incoming freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. The Spartans were also No. 2 in 2013 and in 2010.
Each of those seasons ended differently, but none of them ended with a championship.
So, Izzo has no intention of trying to run from the talk of how good his team might be this season.
“I'm just gonna keep it, to be honest. I kind of like it,” Izzo said. “Listen, we're not the greatest team. We're not North Carolina 2009. … There haven’t been many teams that have gone from No. 1 at the beginning to No. 1 at the end. I don't know anybody that's done it. So our schedule is so good that if we're feeling the pressure that will get knocked out of us quick.
“So I'm going to embrace it. I'm to the point in my career, I look at these last four or five years and the number of games we've won and who we played and who we beat and what we've done, I'm really proud of where the program is right now. I’m not going to use this as ‘enjoy the journey,’ because I do feel the pressure. But I like feeling the pressure … This is what you dream about. If you're a coach, you dream about this. If you’re a fan you dream about this, and if you're a player, you definitely dream about this.”
It helps that Michigan State would qualify as a veteran team.
Senior Cassius Winston is a preseason favorite to win national player of the year honors and he’s joined in the backcourt by fellow senior Joshua Langford, who is full-go after missing most of last season with a broken foot. Tillman, a junior, has been in plenty of big games and the experience gained by the likes of Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Thomas Kithier as freshmen in last season’s Final Four run will be invaluable moving forward.
Add in a couple of potential impact freshmen like guard Rocket Watts and forward Malik Hall and the “experts” are picking Michigan State.
“Not a lot of people get this opportunity,” Winston said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be on this platform. There’s gonna be a lot of people watching, so we’re gonna do everything we can to be prepared, ready to go and take advantage of our opportunity.”
The opportunity will be there early for Michigan State, and it won’t take long to see where the Spartans stand.
The Spartans open the season Nov. 5 against Kentucky in the Champions Classic in New York and will play at Seton Hall for the Gavitt Games on Nov. 14. They then head to the Maui Invitational where a potential matchup with Kansas looms before hosting Duke on Dec. 3 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Kentucky, Kansas and Duke will likely round out the preseason top four along with Michigan State while Seton Hall is a potential top-10 team.
“It’s nice to have that before the Big Ten season,” Tillman said. “It lets us know what we’ve got to work on for those really good teams, those really athletic teams, teams with a lot of five-star talents and what not. It will allow us to get a good glimpse of what we’ll need to improve on later in the season.”
Through it all, the expectations won’t go away. But Izzo believes he’s got the right group of guys to be playing their best when it matters most.
“I got a bunch of guys that have been through the wars that have won a lot of games that have been in some really, really big games,” Izzo said. “They have a mission and they want to accomplish that mission. My job will be don't worry about a loss in October or November, but to try to get better every day so we get in the Big Ten season and we get to the end of the season and we're peaking at the right time.”