April 4, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's basketball uniforms have been folded and stored away until next season, which means coach Tom Izzo and the Spartans have officially entered the retooling phase of the process similarly regarded programs also are going through.
In other words, they're no different than Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA, and none of them reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, as MSU did.
In his annual review and preview, which doubles as a State of State Address, Izzo told the media Tuesday he'd much rather be preparing to play Florida in the Final Four, but Sunday's turnover-and-foul-plagued 60-54 loss to Connecticut in the East Regional championship game at Madison Square Garden moved his schedule up by a week.
Izzo met with each of his players on Monday to set offseason agendas for those who definitely will or may return, and conduct exit interviews with departing seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, who likely will be a first-round NBA draft pick.
And while the Spartans are still mourning the loss of an opportunity to reach the Final Four for a seventh time on Izzo's watch -- "It's been a tough day and a half," he said - he's already looking forward to 2014-15.
"When you think about what this team accomplished with the Sweet 16s and Elite Eight, not getting to our ultimate goal was disappointing, but there's still a lot to feel good about," Izzo said. "In our four losses at the end, we averaged 16 turnovers in each game, so turnovers doomed us, and that was disappointing.
"I feel bad this team had to play with so many injuries because I don't think we ever reconnected to where we were or could have been. But, there were so many other things we accomplished that just kind of shows the program is in good shape even though as a team had some ups and downs. I'm looking forward to retooling and figuring out what's next for us."
The word "rebuilding" isn't even part of MSU's lexicon anymore.
"I don't ever want to use the word rebuild because I don't think we are rebuilding," Izzo said. "Every year we lose somebody, but that means a different role for somebody else. It means a guy like Zel (sophomore guard Denzel Valentine) needs to be retooled to do a different role. Or a guy like (sophomore center) Matt Costello, who was playing very good early and then lost some confidence, maybe because of his (mononucleosis) or maybe because of the way we played him.
"I don't think when you've gone 17 straight years (to the NCAA Tournament) you're rebuilding. We've lost more (personnel) than this, by far. When you look back to '01, we lost seven guys and came back and in the last week were still playing for a Big Ten championship."
Izzo found examples of players making team-changing "jumps" from one season to another throughout the nation's top-20 teams, and two from the conference, in particular. Michigan sophomore Caris LeVert, one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises, went from scoring 2.3 points as a freshman to 12.9 this season and junior forward Frank Kaminsky led Wisconsin to the Final Four with a 13.6 points-per-game average for a one-year improvement of 9.4 points.
"You're going to see Valentine step up," said Izzo, who also mentioned junior backup point guard Travis Trice as someone who could benefit from a healthy and productive offseason. "I think Dawson is going to get to another level and if everybody else takes steps it will be a different kind of team. It won't be as star-studded, but Wisconsin's never been star-studded.
"I'm not worried about it. Don't lose sleep over how we'll be next year I'm not. People are probably right. I'm probably better being an underdog, and I will value this spring, summer and fall."
Michigan State's outlook could be dramatically different in about two weeks when sophomore guard and leading scorer Gary Harris (16.7 points per game) makes a decision regarding the NBA. Although Harris' pre-draft ratings suggest he's a prime candidate to leave early, Izzo hasn't ruled out the possibility of a Tim Duncan-style return.
Harris doesn't fit the profile of many early departees who are forced to leave because of their academic or economic situations. He's a good student who comes from a very stable family and his mother, Joy, played professionally in the WNBA.
"I have my own thoughts on what I think will happen," Izzo said. "His status is still very, very high, and when it's that high, my advice over the years has been if you're ready mentally, you should go.
"I think he's torn because of his relationship with the team, Zel in particular. He loves college and he does have an appreciation for it. He's perfectly fine in school because of who he is and he's perfectly fine at home because of his family situation. All the strange reasons that guys leave -- that they hate school and hear everybody saying take the money -- he doesn't have those factors in his life. In fact, it's just about the opposite. His mother played pro ball and understands the goods and the bads to it."
Just like he did after the '12-13 season for Payne, who at one point appeared to be a lock for entering his name in the NBA draft, Izzo will poll his trusted sources inside and outside of the league to formulate an assessment Harris and junior swingman Branden Dawson can use to help make up their minds.
Dawson came back from a broken hand to play a major role in MSU's postseason run until struggling mightily against UConn with five points on 1-for-3 shooting from the floor, three rebounds and three turnovers.
"With Branden, I will do the same thing," Izzo said. "But I think he's just starting to get there, like A.P. (Payne) last year."
In the meantime, Izzo said the team will pick captains next week. Michigan State didn't have captains last season for the first time since the 1905-06 season because while overall team chemistry was exceptional, no strong individual leaders emerged.
"I experimented with something for all the right reasons and don't regret it in any way, shape or form," Izzo said. "But we'll have two captains and they will be sending my message, and Earvin's (Magic Johnson), Mateen's (Cleaves), Steve's (Smith), Travis' (Walton), Day-Day's (Draymond Green) and anybody else who's been a captain here or had significant influence.
"I'm going to do some unique things I've already decided on. I'm going to figure out a way that even if I don't have it, because they don't just come around, I've got to do a better job of building it. I'm excited about it."
Izzo said he got a touching text from Appling expressing how he would have heeded his coaches' advice to develop a sense of urgency about devoting more time and effort to his game before his senior year.
Trice and Valentine were looking forward to next season within minutes of the loss to Connecticut.
"I have to (become a better leader), I have to," Trice said. "Coach talks all the time about a player-coached team and he felt like we didn't have that this year. One of the reasons I came here, one of the selling points is that every player is going to go to a Final Four. So, that's going to be my motivation."
Valentine said stopping one game short of the Final Four was a gut-check experience for him.
"We overcame so much this year and this has been the funnest thing I've ever experienced in my life," he said. "Now it's over and this was our best chance. Getting there as a sophomore, you never know when you're going to get back.
"When it's gone it really hurts. I can promise you that next year, we're going to get back here. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to make sure I will do whatever I can do to make that sure we're back here. I think we're going to be good. We've got pieces and we're going to work harder than ever."