'We embrace it:' Michigan State opens at No. 1 in AP Top 25 preseason basketball poll

By Aaron Beard
Associated Press

There isn’t much Michigan State has yet to accomplish under Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, from Big Ten titles and Final Four trips to winning a national championship.

Xavier Tillman and Michigan State are the preseason No. 1 basketball team in the Associated Press Top 25.

The Spartans can now add another milestone to the list: They are No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 men’s college basketball preseason poll for the first time in program history.

"It would be an honor if that happened, and if it did, we would embrace it," Izzo said last week at the team's media day. "We're going to be picked in the top five, and I think that's awesome for the program, awesome for the players."

The Spartans were the overwhelming choice with their veteran returnees led by star Cassius Winston. They topped 60 of 65 ballots in voting results released Monday, easily outdistancing No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Kansas as the only other teams to receive first-place votes.

Duke was fourth, followed by Louisville, Florida, Maryland, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Villanova to round out the top 10.

Michigan State opens the season against No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic Nov. 5 at Madison Square Garden in New York. It will be the third time the Spartans have been part of a 1-2 matchup in the event but the first time as the top-ranked team. No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State squared off in 2013 with MSU earning a 78-74 victory, while top-ranked Duke beat second-ranked Michigan State, 88-81, in 2017.

"We embrace it," junior forward Xavier Tillman said. "Obviously we try to lock in on us and lock in on what’s happening on the court with our guys. We embrace it. If people say we’re No. 1 or some say we’re No. 5, we’ll take it either way. We’ll play like we’re targeting somebody else and not like we have a bullseye on our back, which we probably do."

In addition to facing the second-ranked Wildcats to open the season, Michigan State also takes on No. 12 Seton Hall on Nov. 14 and could face No. 3 Kansas in the Maui Invitational. The Spartans then host No. 4 Duke on Dec. 3 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Other ranked opponents included No. 7 Maryland, No. 18 Ohio State and No. 23 Purdue.

Michigan is not ranked, but picked up two points from voters.

Michigan State had been ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks in the AP poll before Monday. But none had come in the preseason poll, with the Spartans starting at No. 2 four times in the past decade.

“It’s almost bizarre to me because I would’ve thought Magic’s team was No. 1,” Izzo said in an interview with the AP.

Nope, the Magic Johnson-led bunch that beat Larry Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA title game started at No. 7.

The Spartans won 32 games last year and reached Izzo’s eighth Final Four before falling to Texas Tech. They return Winston with fellow starters Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry from that run, and they get back another starter in Joshua Langford after he missed much of last year with a foot injury.

That nucleus is good enough that only one voter picked the Spartans as low as third, with four others picking them second and the rest at No. 1. They will be tested right away, too: the Spartans open the season against Kentucky in a 1-vs-2 matchup Nov. 5 in New York.

“This is a program deal and it’s the players in the program, and I’m really proud of them for that,” Izzo said. “Unfortunately, what you are at the beginning of the year doesn’t help you at the end of the year, but I think it does say something about the program and what we’ve done over these years.”

Detroit News staff writer Matt Charboneau contributed.

Associated Press Top 25

1. Michigan State (60 first-place votes), 32-7 last season, 1619 points (last poll in 2018-19: 5)

2. Kentucky (2), 30-7, 1497 (7)

3. Kansas (3), 26-10, 1457 (17)

4. Duke, 32-6, 1399 (1)

5. Louisville, 20-14, 1386 (NR)

6. Florida, 20-16, 1313 (NR)

7. Maryland, 23-11, 1134 (NR)

8. Gonzaga, 33-4, 1096 (4)

9. North Carolina, 29-7, 1060 (3)

10. Villanova, 26-10, 1048 (23)

11. Virginia, 35-3, 1007 (2)

 12. Seton Hall, 20-14, 863 (NR)

 13. Texas Tech, 31-7, 837 (9)

 14. Memphis, 22-14, 773 (NR)

 15. Oregon, 25-13, 742 (NR)

 16. Baylor, 20-14, 523

 17. Utah St., 28-7, 491 (25)

 18. Ohio St., 20-15, 407 (NR)

 19. Xavier, 19-16, 356 (NR)

 20. Saint Mary's (Cal), 22-12, 330 (NR)

 21. Arizona, 17-15, 265 (NR)

 22. LSU, 28-7, 234 (12)

 23. Purdue, 26-10, 230 (13)

 24. Auburn, 30-10, 210 (14)

 25. VCU, 25-8, 193 (NR)

Others receiving votes: Washington 164, Colorado 152, Tennessee 78, Marquette 68, Florida St. 36, Davidson 34, Harvard 24, Illinois 14, Missouri 13, Mississippi St. 12, Houston 11, Georgetown 11, Cincinnati 8, Notre Dame 7, Creighton 4, Syracuse 3, NC State 3, Vermont 2, Alabama 2, Southern Cal 2, Liberty 2, Michigan 2, Dayton 1, Colgate 1, Providence 1.