Oct. 18, 2011
EAST LANSING, Mich. -
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
Call it "The Year of the Makeover" for the Michigan State basketball team.
Junior center Derrick Nix may personify the dramatic transformation that's afoot inside the Breslin Center, but change abounds all around.
The Spartans are conspicuous by their absence from the preseason polls, new faces are showing up in so many old places, and old faces - well, there just aren't that many old faces and one of the oldest is actually a new face.
But as odd as it may sound, unfamiliarity isn't breeding contempt at MSU.
"It will be a different looking team than you've seen in the past seasons, there's no question about it, with most of our guys being new," 17-year coach Tom Izzo said at the outset of the team's annual Media Day introduction on Tuesday. "But some of that is kind of exciting, too."
It sure beats the alternative universe Michigan State lived in last season when it finished 19-15, tied for fourth in the Big Ten with a 9-9 record and was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Izzo used one word to describe it: "mediocre."
Two mainstays from that team, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, have used up their eligibility and a third, and three-year starter Delvon Roe, called it a career before his senior season due to chronic knee pain.
Senior forward Draymond Green can light up a room, and maybe even an arena, with his star power, but sophomore guard Keith Appling is the only other returning Spartans who averaged at least 20 minutes per game last season.
Wood is a fifth-year senior shooting guard with 64 Division-I starts under his belt -- including one against Michigan State -- but all while wearing Valparaiso's uniform for two seasons. Under NCAA rules, a player who gets a degree from one school can transfer to another and play immediately as long as he's enrolled in a graduate program.
From this new mixture of ingredients, the Spartans are already sensing a better chemistry than last season when discipline issues, early player departures and injuries that disrupted the usual offseason bonding period made team cohesion all but impossible.
"This is going to be a fun team to watch," Izzo said. "Blending our experience, or lack thereof, with our in-between guys, with our rookie guys. I think the chemistry and camaraderie is going to be a lot better than it's been."
It should be noted that Izzo didn't bemoan the team's lack of talent.
"We have quality depth at each position," he said. "We just don't have quality experience. When I say quality depth, I mean good enough players two deep at each position. We just don't have the experience. So I think it's a little more exciting. They're going to grow and get better."
If Izzo had to put a starting lineup on the floor today, it would come from a pool of six players: Green, Appling, Nix, Wood, Dawson, a true freshman, and sophomore center Adreian Payne, who averaged just nine minutes last season.
That Nix is even in the conversation is a tribute to Izzo's powers of persuasion and Nix's power of perseverance. He weighed in, by stepping on an actual courtside scale, at 267 pounds, 29 under what he weighed at the end of last season.
Nix dropped weight before, but was repeatedly the victim of the rebound effect, and not the good kind for a basketball player.
"I kind of got happy when I'd see a little success and would go back up," Nix said. "I think it's a maturity thing. I talked to Coach about it and he said this time around, there can be no more letups or weight-gain.
"I've got a big role to play on this team."
Nix's transformation is remarkable. The pot belly in the before-and-after photos he had on his interview table is gone, and he now has a waistline. Nix said he runs the court, instead of lumbering down it, and with newfound endurance should be able to easily surpass the 8.2 minutes of playing time he logged last season.
"As far as dunks, no one's ever seen me dunk a lot, but I got a few at Midnight Madness and I was excited about that," he said. "I pretty much get up the floor better and rebound better. I can play for longer stretches."
Nix and Payne are looking to absorb the minutes Roe would have played, and Payne said the biggest difference fans will notice about him is his mental approach.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," Payne said. "Not as much is being put on me to learn as much. Coming in as a freshman, you've got to learn so much in a little time. If you know what you're doing, as far as this system, you can just go out and play without thinking.
"Last year, I was thinking about what I had to do every time instead of just playing. I feel this year, I'll just be able to play." Even senior Austin Thornton, who fans have come to know as a gritty role player, will have a new look thanks to new assistant coach Dane Fife.
"When Coach Fife came in, he told me a couple things I needed to work on in order to play consistently and more minutes," Thornton said. "One was extending my range."
Thornton practically lived in the gym all summer while shooting long-range jump shots by the hundreds.
"It's hopefully now second nature, and less robotic," Thornton said.
Byrd, a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman, is making the transition from the bench, where he spent last season, to the wing where he's a light-out shooter. He said his left foot, which has undergone three operations, is finally sound and now he's just working on getting into game shape.
What won't be different, Green promised, is the Spartans' approach to the season despite a torrid non-conference schedule that begins with North Carolina and Duke and includes a trip to Gonzaga, and an ultra-competitive Big Ten lineup with heavily favored Ohio State and parity from teams two through nine.
"Everybody's gonna count us out, which is fine with me," Green said. "It's something new for me, but I'm definitely ready to step up to the challenge to see what we can do. Our expectations won't be anything less than it is every year.
"I want to help these guys get to experience a Final Four and a Big Ten championship, and all the things I've experienced here. I know what it took for those previous teams to get there, and I'm going to try to bring that back around here. It's not going to be easy, but I think we have the parts to do what we've done here in the past."
Said Izzo, "We're not going to disappoint you. We're going to be a better team in a lot of ways this year. We'll see how that turns in and out wins and losses."