Oct. 9, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - A blast from the past looked in on one Michigan State's early fall basketball workouts recently and put his finger on why coach Tom Izzo is as revved up to start a new season as he's been in years.
For a quick minute, Tim Bograkos took off his young alumni coordinator for the MSU Alumni Association hat and was back in the No. 30 he wore as a hard-nosed Spartans guard from 2000-05.
"He came to practice last Friday," Izzo said during Michigan State's media day at the Breslin Center Tuesday. "And Timmy's sitting there and he's half the old school and half the new school. He was here when those practices looked like wars and he's been here when they've been like prom dancing.
"And he said to me, `Hey Coach, looks like old-time practices are back, huh?' And I looked back at him and said, `Hey Tim, that's the best compliment you could give me.' Our guys are gonna practice hard, our guys are gonna play hard, our guys are going to appreciate this university and the things in it and what they've got.
"That's why I feel better. That's why I'm more ready to go. I'm at peace with that and ready to have a great year."
Even Izzo, a self-avowed pessimist, questioned the source of his cheery outlook.
After all, colorful Draymond Green, a once-in-a-decade bundle of charisma, leadership and charm, not to mention the team's leading scorer and rebounder, has used up his eligibility and is off to the NBA. Austin Thornton, a Bograkos-like pleaser who provided immeasurable intangibles because of his willingness to do all the thankless jobs, also is gone.
But the Spartans returning from last season's Big Ten regular season and tournament championship team, which went from being unranked in the preseason to earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the ridiculously accomplished freshman class provide the basis for perhaps the most intriguing plotline in Izzo's 18 seasons as head coach.
It started to thicken on Page 1 when Izzo announced that in a players-only vote, senior center Derrick Nix, who was in serious jeopardy of being kicked off the team after being arrested for marijuana possession last April, and red-shirt sophomore guard Russell Byrd, who came off his third foot surgery to average just 5.5 minutes per game last season, were elected co-captains.
Nix has been so intent on atoning for his bad decisions to his team and coaches, and restoring his image with the MSU community, he more than tripled the 24 hours of community service he was required to perform. Nix was a unanimous choice.
Byrd's perseverance through disappointment, tough times and three foot surgeries, along with his willingness to engage every player on the team, made him an easy selection by teammates.
The roster provides Izzo with so many options and minimal off-court issues - yes, he's got the annual obligatory guard who's had a health-challenged off-season, but Travis Trice is on the rebound from a serious illness - he's like a kid with an unlimited gift card in a candy store.
There's sophomore swingman Branden Dawson, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament with six games to play, never experienced swelling which expedited his recovery from surgery and was fully healed three months ahead of schedule. Although his fitness level still needs work, he would start tonight if MSU had a game.
"He's the bionic man," Izzo said.
In junior point guard Keith Appling, the Spartans have a whirling dervish who can push the ball upcourt at breakneck speeds not seen in Breslin since Eric Snow, is as good a defender as any in the country, according to Izzo, and has put up countless jump shots to regain the scoring touch he had as one of the nation's premier high school point producers at Detroit Pershing.
Adreian Payne, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior big man, has improved his face-to-the-basket game so much, Izzo is convinced he can play him at power forward alongside the 6-9, 270-pound Nix for extended minutes. Both run the court so well, Izzo said, they'll be at home when MSU runs the fast break and in halfcourt sets.
"We plan to be more up-tempo and we are going to try to run," Izzo said. "I think we have big guys who can run. We've had Nix and Payne together a lot and I like the way they've worked so far."
Trice, who was completely sidelined for eight weeks this summer by a mysterious illness, allows Izzo to either spell Appling at the point or move him to shooting guard, while a fully healthy Byrd is expected to finally be the deadly perimeter shooting threat Izzo recruited him to be. Meantime, sophomore guard Brandan Kearney is a jack-of-all trades in the Bograkos/Thornton mold.
Freshmen Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello should contribute right out of the box, and Kenny Kaminski might have been right there with them if he hadn't suffered a serious shoulder injury requiring surgery this September. Regardless, all four are members of Izzo's favorite species of basketball player: rattus gymnicus.
"We're a solid 10 deep," Izzo said. "I feel really comfortable with different lineups in there. I think we can go really big with a Nix-Payne-Dawson lineup. I think we'll be able to go small with a Payne-Dawson or Payne-Byrd with three perimeter guys lined up.
"I think my teams have been best when we've had the versatility to do both. It's really an advantage when you get into conference play and you have to face difference kinds of offenses and defenses, and definitely when you get into the NCAA Tournament when the ability to play big or small is critical. That really hurt us last year when we lost Dawson."
Replacing the leadership lost with Green and Thornton is Izzo's most pressing issue, but even that could prove to be one of the more interesting developments to watch as the season progresses.
"I don't know where the leadership is on this team, but I do know where the chemistry is, and the chemistry has been pretty doggone good," he said. "I think they're pulling for one another and realize that if we run like we can and pressure like we can, we're going to need to play people.
"Right now, I think we're going to be deep, and it's going to be fun to coach them that way."
Appling acknowledged that MSU will be different without a dominant personality like Green around to set examples, address concerns and represent the team. However, there shouldn't be a shortage of leadership as long as the Spartans operate like a collective.
"At the end of the day, we all are Michigan State Spartans and we look at it like a fist," Appling said. "Once we ball that fist up, it's very powerful. We're a bunch of brothers who are willing to do whatever we have to do to win basketball games."
After a tumultuous 2010-11 season that had Izzo re-evaluating his program, Green's singular leadership was exactly what the 2011-12 Spartans needed. Now, it might be time for a different approach.
"I honestly don't know what it will be like without Draymond because he was a very strong leader," Byrd said. "That's just kind of the way it was last year and nobody had a problem with it because we respected him.
"But there were some guys who attained leadership qualities and you knew they had them. It's just a matter of who's going to use them, improve in some areas, take responsibility and step into that position."