Opening the 2012-13 season in a unique way, the 14th-ranked Michigan State Spartans and the Connecticut Huskies will face off in a converted airplane hangar at Ramstein Air Base in Reinland, Germany in the Armed Forces Classic.
After accumulating 873 career victories, the sixth-most all time, legendary head coach Jim Calhoun has retired after 26 years at the helm for UConn. Calhoun's final season was yet another successful one, as the Huskies finished 20-14 (8-10 Big East), their 16th 20-win season in the last 19 years, which culminated in their 31st trip to the NCAA Tournament. Filling Calhoun's big shoes will be Kevin Ollie, who is the 18th head coach in program history.
While UConn lost its long-time coach, Michigan State still holds on to its prized leader in Tom Izzo, who led his team to a 29-8 overall record last season and its first Big Ten Tournament Championship since 2000. The Spartans went to their 15th straight NCAA Tournament, earning a No. 1 seed and advancing to the Sweet 16 where they fell to Louisville, 57-44. MSU usually comes into the season opener well prepared, having won 33 of its last 35 lidlifters.
These two teams have split four previous matchups, and UConn was victorious the last time they met in the 2010 Maui Invitational (70-67).
Ollie will have his hands full this season as he inherits a squad that looks almost nothing like the team that put up 68.7 ppg a year ago. Top scorer Jeremy Lamb (17.7 ppg) and imposing big man Andre Drummond (10.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) were both selected in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft, and key role players Alex Oriakhi (6.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Roscoe Smith (4.4 ppg) have transferred. Luckily for the Huskies, the cupboard isn't completely bare. Shabazz Napier returns to the lineup after putting up 13.0 ppg and a team-high 5.8 apg, and he has been named to the Preseason All-Big East Second Team. Ryan Boatright (10.4 ppg, 4.0 apg) joins Napier in the backcourt, giving UConn plenty of leadership at the guard position, and helping the rotation along with be 6-6 freshman Omar Calhoun, who has the offensive tools to step in and contribute from day one. Things are looking a bit more shaky up front, as Tyler Olander (4.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) is the most experienced forward on the squad, although seven-footer Enosch Wolf could provide some relief after playing just eight games a year ago.
Michigan State also has to deal with the loss of an elite player as it will be without the graduated Draymond Green, who averaged 16.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 3.8 apg last season in being named the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year. The good news for coach Izzo is that he has a handful of veteran leaders ready to step up. Junior Keith Appling is the team's top returning performer after averaging 11.4 ppg and 3.9 a season ago, and he will assume the role of go-to scorer during crunch time. Also returning to the lineup is Branden Dawson (8.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who can play both guard and forward, as well as Adreian Payne (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who was a critical defensive presence in the post last year with a team-high 39 blocks. Travis Trice (4.5 ppg) is in for a more expanded role this season after leading Big Ten freshmen in three-point field goal percentage (.405). Regardless of who is on the floor, MSU will undoubtedly continue to play suffocating defense, as it ranked 15th in the nation in points allowed per game (59.3), and second in field goal percentage defense (.379) last season.