Zach Hayes is a editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court. To see the entire group of 2010-11 Class Schedules, click here.
If there’s one guarantee when it comes to Michigan State on an annual basis, it’s this: more often than not, the Spartans are playing their best basketball in March when the chips are down and the spotlight shines all that brighter. Since the 1997-98 season, Tom Izzo’s team is an extraordinary 98 games over .500 in Big Ten play and have notched five regular season conference titles, so it’s not as if the Spartans go through the motions for four months before kicking it into high gear in the NCAA Tournament. Still, when Izzo and his program are mentioned on a national scale, it’s normally their spring success that defines the last 13 years at the helm: 9 Sweet 16 berths, 7 Elite 8 appearances, 5 Semifinal Saturday’s and that glorious national title in 2000. Prognosticating is never easy, but judging by the talent returning for Izzo in 2010-11, the Breslin Center rafters may have to clear room for another banner.
Tom Izzo's teams get the job done in March
Team Outlook: Whether Kalin Lucas would have made the difference in Michigan State upending Butler and Duke in last season’s Final Four is up for contentious debate, but one silver lining Spartan fans realized when Lucas tore his Achilles was that they’d have their former Big Ten Player of the Year back for his senior season. While it should take Lucas weeks into the season to regain full health and confidence, he’s surrounded by a supporting cast that can pick up the slack. Draymond Green will be thrust into a starting role he should handle, a unique point-forward with tremendous court vision that can also score inside. A focused Durrell Summers can explode for three-point binges bordering on unstoppable, although he must mold himself into a stronger and more consistent perimeter defender in the absence of transfer Chris Allen. Delvon Roe may finally prove healthy for an entire campaign and Izzo brought in freshman Adreian Payne to aid him in the post. Pending Izzo’s decision on how to handle a recent drunk driving incident, Korie Lucious proved a capable sub for Lucas in State’s tournament push while Keith Appling is another guard with a bright future off the Spartan bench. Michigan State is talented, deep, phenomenally coached and will play in March atmospheres every night in the rugged Big Ten. A preseason #2 ranking will likely follow when October rolls around for a program and a coach that’s used to winning under the brunt of sky-high expectations and a challenging schedule.
Non-Conference Schedule Rank (ranked 1 thru 10, 10 being the most difficult): 9.5. Combine Izzo’s always-aggressive scheduling strategy with a loaded Big Ten and Michigan State’s slate for the 2010-11 season rivals any Big East death march since that conference expanded. A home date in ESPN’s Tip-Off against South Carolina shouldn’t prove too dramatic of a challenge but the Spartans voyage to Maui will be if a championship goal is met. Believe it or not, Wichita State is a tougher semifinal matchup than Connecticut this season, the preseason Missouri Valley favorite that returns a good chunk of their balanced scoring output. A potential finals meeting with either Kentucky or Washington is waiting should State avoid a “shocking” upset (get it? Wichita State Shockers? Never mind). As a much-needed break a week following Maui, Michigan State gets to face Duke in Cameron Indoor, the loaded preseason #1 team in the nation for what should be the highlight game before the calendar turns to 2011. A week later? The Jimmy V Classic against Syracuse. I’m not done- in late December the Spartans continue their series with Texas on their home floor in East Lansing. That’s the potential to face plenty of stiff competition heading into a treacherous Big Ten.
Cupcake City: As any Divison I coach would at this high of a level, Izzo managed to sneak in a few cupcakes to give his Spartans brief reprieves around those hyped matchups. As the team projected to do the most damage this season, State draws Division II Chaminade in their quarterfinal Maui game. The Spartans open the regular season against Eastern Michigan on November 12 and will face Tennessee Tech in their first game back from the islands. One team that could give the Spartans a bit of a scare is Oakland, last year’s Summit champions that received the tremendous news this spring that Keith Benson would be returning for his senior season. If the Golden Grizzlies secondary pieces can step up following the losses of Johnathon Jones and Derick Nelson, this battle at Auburn Hills could be a sneaky one for Izzo. The only other semi-soft team on the docket is Bowling Green. Combine this non-conference schedule with what’s expected to be a strong in-conference slate and it’d be shocking if the Spartans didn’t finish the season with a top-three SOS, which is always a welcomed RPI booster.
Toughest Early Season Test: This one is fairly obvious, no? One year after being thrown to the wolves at what ended up being an underachieving North Carolina squad, it’s Michigan State once again making the trek to Tobacco Road to face likely-#1 Duke on December 1. When Izzo received the news that Lucas was returning to go with an already established core, he had to know the ACC/Big Ten Challenge would likely pit his Spartans in the most marquee contest possible. I can easily envision Duke pulling off similar to what Kansas accomplished last season- nearly a wire-to-wire spot atop the rankings with two or three slip-ups all season long. Although I’m of the opinion they’ll miss Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek more than anticipated given how challenging it is to find a team that played their roles so effectively as last season’s Blue Devil squad mastered, there’s truly an unfair amount of talent returning to the defending champs. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith are both ACC Player of the Year candidates, Coach K lured the top incoming guard in the nation to Durham in Kyrie Irving, they boast the Plumlee brothers in the post and Seth Curry is quite the weapon off the bench. The Spartans will have their hands full in Durham especially if Lucas isn’t playing at 100% to limit Duke’s dynamic frosh.
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