EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tom Izzo is still lamenting an opportunity that slipped away last season.
"Not many times I felt like we had a chance to do something special — last year I did," the Michigan State coach said. "I really believed it was a year to not only get back to a Final Four but I thought a legitimate chance to win a national championship."
After an injury-plagued regular season, the Spartans entered the NCAA tournament as one of the trendy picks to make a deep run, but they were eliminated in the Elite Eight by eventual champion Connecticut. Michigan State must replace Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling from that team. If nothing else, the Spartans don't have to feel burdened by the weight of any outsized expectations right now.
"We still have pieces," guard Denzel Valentine said. "We've still got weapons that people don't know about yet, and I think that's going to help us this year with extra motivation and have that chip on our shoulder."
Valentine started 33 games last season, and his solid all-around game was a big asset. The Spartans also will expect a lot from Branden Dawson, who enters his senior season as the team's top returning scorer.
Izzo is entering his 20th season as Michigan State's coach, and remarkably, the school's current four-year stretch without a Final Four appearance is the longest since he took over. The Spartans may not be among the heavy favorites this preseason, but it would be foolish to count them out.
"I guess I'm privileged that I'm still here, but I'm excited to be here," Izzo said. "Looking forward to more than a couple more years, that's for sure."
Here are some things to watch over the next few months at Michigan State, which opens the season Nov. 14 at Navy:
DAWSON'S CHANCE: Dawson decided to stay at Michigan State instead of leaving early for the NBA draft, and the Spartans are hoping this is the season everything comes together. His college career was stunted at the end of his freshman season when he tore a ligament in his left knee and needed major surgery, and he had another injury-related setback in the middle of last season because of a broken right hand.
OUTSIDE SHOOTING: Michigan State will miss Harris and his smooth shooting stroke, but Izzo said he thinks the Spartans are now a better shooting team collectively. Travis Trice went 43 percent from 3-point range last season, and Valentine was at 38 percent.
TOUGH SCHEDULE: Michigan State turned heads immediately last season with a win over then-No. 1 Kentucky, and the Spartans will be tested right away again this year. Four days after the season opener, they'll take on Duke in Indianapolis.
NEWCOMERS: Junior Bryn Forbes is immediately eligible after two seasons at Cleveland State, where he made 142 3-pointers.
Freshmen Javon Bess, Marvin Clark Jr. and Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. are expected to be part of the rotation. Bess, however, is dealing with a right foot injury and will likely miss the start of the season.
GET TO THE LINE: Michigan State attempted only 19.2 free throws per game last season, good for ninth in the Big Ten. Harris, Appling and Payne accounted for most of those attempts, so it remains to be seen whether the 2014-15 team will be able to draw fouls at a decent rate.
It's one area in which Dawson could provide a boost, provided he stays healthy and has a big season.
"He has been a treat to coach this year," Izzo said. "He gets it. I don't have to be on him anymore because I know that he knows we're on the same page. Whenever that happens, coaching's a lot easier."