Tom Izzo talks before MSU's first practice of the season
East Lansing — Tom Izzo knew he had a special group of players last season, which made the first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Middle Tennessee all the more difficult to swallow.
It was hard enough considering the Spartans were one of a handful of teams that were picked to win the national title, but the fact it ended the careers for seniors Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes in such crushing fashion was hard for Izzo.
It was that group of seniors that helped build the chemistry Izzo had longed for in the previous several seasons. Any divisiveness was gone and the entire locker room was on the same page, not something that could be said in every season.
“A word we’ve been using around here with our former players last week and our current players now that I am willing to start accepting is that I think we’ve built a damn good culture,” Izzo said on Friday. “And the culture — you know, it’s gonna have its flaws, and we’re gonna go up and down a little bit here. But the culture I think is special.”
It’s that culture that Izzo hopes to continue, even as he and the Spartans got ready for their first official practice of the season as the opener against Arizona in Hawaii looms on Nov. 11.
To continue that culture, Izzo will not only be counting on the likes of Gavin Schilling, Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis — this season’s seniors — but he’ll be leaning heavily on junior Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn and sophomore Matt McQuaid.
The biggest variable is the highly touted recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward.
How quickly they buy in to the culture is crucial, and through short workouts through the summer, Izzo has been impressed.
“Those three seniors did a lot for this program and it’s hard not to miss them,” Izzo said. “But watching guys come in like a Miles and Josh and especially Cassius, that have bought into things so quickly makes me realize what an impact those guys last year really had on Michigan State basketball and not just that year. I think these guys get it.
“I think guys are buying into it, I think our former guys have led the way, our current guys are appreciating it, and I’ve seen big growth in those freshmen in that area. And I do give Tum a lot credit for that. I think he’s been incredible.”
As the Spartans start getting ready to play games in a few weeks, they’ll be working to get several injured players back to 100 percent. McQuaid dealt with hernia surgery while forward Kenny Goins has been rehabbing the knee he had surgery on in June. And graduate transfer forward Ben Carter is coming off the torn ACL he suffered at UNLV in January.
“Two of them I still worry about because they were knees, and that’s Goins and Carter,” Izzo said. “Both guys have been great. McQuaid, I think, is 99 percent good.
“But you don’t miss six, seven, eight months and come back in a month (for Carter). So it’s how much we can use him to get ready by Christmas to get ready to go.”
Michigan State will need all the help it can get with a nonconference schedule that is as difficult as it has had in recent memory.
After the opener against Arizona, Michigan State travels across the country to play Kentucky in New York four days later. The Spartans return home for the weekend and by the next week they’re off to the Bahamas where they could face the likes of Louisville and Baylor. By the end of the month on Nov. 29, Michigan State heads to Durham, N.C., to play at Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“I’m gonna tell you the reality of this,” Izzo said. “We are in for the most brutal 20 days in the history of Michigan State basketball. Period.
“With the travel, teams played, and youth. Those three things. The exciting part is, as those guys say to me every time I get a little bit paranoid about (saying), ‘Get your rest now because you’re not going to get it later, don’t miss classes because you’re not going to, you know, you’re gonna be gone a lot later.’ They keep reminding me that’s why they came. We will see if they feel that way seven games in.”