Oct. 23, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The spotlight is as bright as it's ever been on Michigan State basketball, but dealing with the glare beats being tucked away -- out of sight and out of mind -- in a dark corner.
The Spartans realize that trying to downplay what they have returning in for the 2013-14 season would be an exercise in futility, anyway, so they celebrated their high-stakes situation, instead, Tuesday at the annual MSU Media Day at the Breslin Center.
Sophomore guard Gary Harris, whose decision to eschew the NBA draft after last season, is one of the reasons Michigan State is a consensus preseason top-four pick (No. 2 in the USA Today coaches' poll), said he didn't come back to finish second.
"I love it," said Harris. "We're all in. We want all the marbles. Go big or go home. Those are our expectations. We have the bar set high, and our goal is to reach it.
"Everybody's motivated, everybody's dedicated and that's what we need for us to be all-in. We all have to be on the same page. National championship or bust - that's our goal."
The Spartans would have verbalized lofty objectives under any circumstance, because that's become an annual rite of fall under head coach Tom Izzo.
After all, Michigan State tied for second in the Big Ten and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, or further, for the fifth time since 2007 despite inconsistency brought by injuries suffered in-season by Harris and point guard Travis Trice, and years-long recoveries from previous ailments that were put on hold by the likes of Branden Dawson and Russell Byrd.
However, when senior center Adreian Payne came out of a week of soul-searching last spring convinced that a professional contract can wait another year while he pursues college basketball immortality, MSU's status switched from that of "contender" to "favorite."
In the meantime, the Spartans banded together like few others in Izzo's 19 seasons during an offseason that's been the healthiest in recent memory.
"I think we have a bunch of guys that understand that this is an opportunity of a lifetime," Izzo said. "I mean, how good are we? You know, it's so hard to say. When I look at the years that I've been here, I thought we had a good chance to get back to a Final Four in 2000 because of what we did in '99 and what we had back.
"In 2001, I thought we had a good chance to get back because even though we lost a couple key players, you bring in a (Zach) Randolph and you had some players that were juniors and seniors around you. It was pretty impressive. Other than that, I don't think we've ever had as good of a chance. We've gotten there three other times; we still haven't won another one. This year's team has a chance."
If winning MSU's second national title since 2000 and third ever, or getting back to a seventh Final Four under Izzo and ninth all-time, isn't incentive enough, there's something else.
Every one of Izzo's four-year players has made it to the Final Four. Payne and senior guard Keith Appling don't want to be the first to have the distinction of falling short.
"It's very important," Payne said. "I think about that every night. For us, we do it this year or it's not going to be done for me and Keith because this is our last year. It was talked about (when I was being recruited) and it still is.
"It's talked about all the time. For us to get there, we have to continue to keep it on our minds. I came back to win a national championship and to graduate. The main thing for us to do as a team is to continue to get better and strive for the goal we planned."
Payne knows that unless he goes out on top, his decision to return will be questioned, but he's not worried about that.
"That's why I came here and that's what great players want," he said. "They want to have that spotlight on them and always dream about living up to it. It's here, and I've got to deal with it by continuing to improve.
"It's always good to have the spotlight on you, but you've got to have players and your team has to be able to back you up, too. I think our team is ready for it. We can't run from it."
Izzo provided plenty of reasons for Payne's confidence - his own astounding devotion to improving, when he could have rested on his laurels, since losing to Duke in the regional semifinal notwithstanding.
Appling's upgrade in the leadership department is being matched by his decision-making. Dawson is completely over the self-imposed mental restrictions that grounded him after sustaining a devastating knee injury at the end of the 2010-11 season. He's back to jumping out of the gym while showing marked improvement with his ball-handling and jump-shooting, Izzo said.
Trice, who had an offseason brain infection compounded by a couple of concussions last season, has put 25 pounds of muscle back on his frame. Denzel Valentine continues to lead from the rear with an indefatigable work ethic before, after and during practice.
Space-eating Derrick Nix has graduated, but Izzo expects Alex Gauna and Matt Costello to provide workman-like performances in the low post. Byrd, finally recovered from a surgically repaired ankle injury that has plagued him since high school, and redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski are top candidates to provide scoring from the perimeter provided they contribute on defense.
"They're both tough, they're both strong, they're both great athletes," Izzo said.
The schedule is typically MSU-tough, with a date against No. 1-ranked Kentucky looming in Chicago in just the second game of the season. North Carolina will visit the Breslin Center a month later and the highly touted Big Ten will put the Spartans through a murders' row of conference competition.
"I think our job this year is to push them farther than they thought they could go," Izzo said. "I think we've got enough maturity and enough guys that are driven that we can accomplish that. I don't think they'll take it as anything bad.
"I just had Payne and Dawson in this morning and talked to them about - we had a film session last night. Can you consistently do the things you did in some of those spots? And consistently means every time. It's going to be fun to work towards and I am looking forward to that."