Michigan State is pretty good, and Tom Izzo knows it.
"I can honestly say that it's interesting, when you come in and you're picked high — and we've been picked high before — and I think we deserve to be up there," Izzo said at Big Ten basketball media day on Halloween.
The Spartans were chosen as the unanimous pick to win the conference title, and they are ranked the No. 2 team in the country to open the 2013-14 campaign. They return four of five starters including their three top scorers, who combined to average 36.8 points last season.
And then there's Gary Harris.
The sophomore guard was selected as the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year thanks mostly to an incredible freshman campaign that saw him average 12.9 points per game and lead the Spartans with a 41.1-percent three-point percentage. The hopes are high for Harris, and they won't go down after his coach said he could be one of the best ever.
"Knock on wood, there's a couple of unique things about Gary Harris which could make him one of the best guards I've ever coached," Izzo said. "And one is his mental approach to things. He's a very humble kid, and he's low maintenance. That's odd this day and age. And the second thing, he's a shooter that guards people. And that's odd in this day and age, or any age, in fact, now that I think back to some of the guys that we've had many years ago.
"So I just think that he came back because he wanted to come back. He came back to try to accomplish more. He stayed up there all summer, didn't go to the USA stuff or this or that. He just wanted to rehab, get healthy and get better. And he's a gym rat. So I don't see the celebrity side of it bothering him, as long as he stays healthy, which he's had no issues at all. This kid has gotten better and better and I think will get better and be one of the all-time great guards at Michigan State."
Harris isn't alone when it comes to the top talent returning to East Lansing. Senior guard Keith Appling scored more points than even Harris a season ago, and senior center Adreian Payne averaged 7.6 rebounds per game last year.
But all eyes will be on Harris, mainly because he'll do so much to establish who the Spartans are on the court.
"Well, I think what he brings to us, we think we could be a great running team. And last year, between (Branden) Dawson's knee and how slow that came back and Gary after the third game of the year, I mean, unbeknownst to me I think he played hurt three-fourths of the year, not at 100 percent for sure," Izzo said. "He's just a tough kid that every time I asked him are you OK, he said yes. He didn't run as well. He's run so much better already that that could change the identity of this year's team. And I think we're going to be able to put more pressure on people. He's better with the ball. I think we're going to use him more in ball screens and things like that. So his health, his growth, his offseason, I think, is going to be a great part of who we are, and I think the fact that we can run again with both those wings is going to make us a better team."
The Spartans finished last season with a 25-8 record and a 13-5 record in conference, falling to eventual Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State in the conference tourney. In the Big Dance, Michigan State topped Valparaiso and crushed Memphis before losing to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen.
At the helm
It's season No. 19 for Tom Izzo at Michigan State, and the last 16 have seen his Spartans reach the NCAA tournament. He's been to two national championship games (winning one), six Final Fours, seven Elite Eights and 11 Sweet Sixteens. With the elite group of returning starters, it would figure that Izzo will add another number to at least one of those categories, if not all of them, this season.
Departed and returned
The only major departure for the Spartans this season is Derrick Nix, who started all but two games last season and put up big rebounding numbers, as well as ranking as the team's fourth-leading scorer. But the improvement of the returners figures to outweigh anything they might have lost. Four starters — Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson — are back, as is Denzel Valentine, who started 15 games last year. Those are five of the team's top six scorers. Payne and Appling additionally bring senior leadership to the group.
Needing to fill few holes, Izzo brought in just one big-time recruit, Gavin Schilling, ranked as the No. 125 prospect in the nation by Rivals. Schilling has a long list of hometowns. Born in Germany, raised in France, he calls Chicago home and attended high school in Henderson, Nev. Now he's donning green and white in East Lansing.
Michigan State's second game of the season — Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. — is the perhaps most heralded of the entire college basketball season. The Spartans battle Kentucky in the first 1-2 matchup since 2008 as part of the Champions Classic at the United Center. Other big opponents before Big Ten play starts include Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, North Carolina (Big Ten/ACC Challenge) and Texas.
Izzo always seems to have his teams on the verge of greatness, always battling for a national title whether as one of the country's top teams or just a solid one surpassing expectations. This year should be no different, and a national title will likely be the expectation in East Lansing.
"I do think we've got a good team," Izzo said. "I think we've got a veteran team. I think we've added some pieces. We've got some guys back healthy. You put all those things together, I think it gives you a shot, if guys handle the things that go with being ranked high and continue to get better each and every game. So that's what I'm looking forward to.
"If we do that, I think it will be a good year."
This is the 12th in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.