EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is pretty fired up about his team's chances this season.
It's easy to see why.
Despite losing All-American forward Draymond Green, the 14th-ranked Spartans are deep and talented.
"We have a chance to put together a pretty good team," Izzo said, sounding perhaps as optimistic as he has before a season in years.
Izzo has four of his top six scorers back from last season's team that won Big Ten titles in the regular season and conference tournament and put the program in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the 10th time in 15 years.
And what really pleases Izzo, is how hard his players are working and what he heard from former Spartans guard Tim Bograkos, who was a player in the program from 2000-05, after one of their early workouts.
"He was here when those practices were like wars and he's been here when they've been like belly bumping, prom dancing practices," Izzo said. "He said to me, 'Hey, coach, looks like old-time practices are back, huh?' I said, 'Hey, Tim, that's the best compliment you can give me.'"
Third-year guard Russell Byrd said the team can put together drills and scrimmages that will prep the team well for what is expected to be a demanding season.
"It's crazy how competitive it is in practice," Byrd said. "Coach keeps saying it reminds him of the championship season."
Izzo — in his 18th year as head coach and 30th with the program — led the Spartans to the 2000 national championship and is coming off his 15th straight NCAA tournament.
Michigan State won its seventh Big Ten title under Izzo and third conference tournament championship last season.
Green had a lot do that.
The do-it-all forward, who graduated and was drafted by Golden State, leaves a void on the court as a scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. He also will be missed as a leader Izzo compares to former Spartans guards Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves.
"We have to keep in perspective that Draymond Green was a once-in-a-decade leader, maybe once every 13 years," Izzo said. "Cleaves and Magic, they're just guys that do things for you in so many ways. You try to find someone that's going to live up to half that standard, not all of it.
"That's going to be our job. I think leadership was the strength of our program last year and I think it's still a little bit of a question mark right now."
Players voted Byrd, whose career has been stunted by three surgeries on his left foot, and Derrick Nix, who pleading guilty to impaired driving charge that stemmed from an April traffic stop, to be the team's captains.
Izzo has decided not to suspend Nix for any games after making his life "miserable" during the offseason.
"This kid has made incredible progress," Izzo said. "He's made his mistakes, which can help him be a great captain."
Talent can help highly touted freshmen Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine earn a starting job, or at least a role as a key reserve, on a team that will lean on returning players such as Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Nix.
"The freshmen give us so many options," Dawson said. "The fit in quite well."
Dawson has recovered remarkably well from having major surgery on his left knee after getting hurt in Michigan State's last game of the regular season. The 6-foot-6 guard can run, cut and leap as if was never injured.
"I'm able to go all out, doing everything the rest of the guys are doing," Dawson said.
Michigan State has scheduled its first of two exhibition games for Tuesday night at home against Northwood (Fla.) — an NAIA team led by former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino.
The Spartans will start the regular season with two road games in consecutive seasons for the first time in nearly 100 years. They'll open against Connecticut on Nov. 9 in Germany and will play No. 7 Kansas four days later in Atlanta a year after playing North Carolina on an aircraft carrier and facing Duke in New York.
"It'll be the same deal as last year," Dawson said. "We'll be ready for it."
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