Tom Izzo insists he has no idea what to expect from his team this season.
It’s easy to see why.
Michigan State’s coach, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last month, has not had his program turn over as much as it has in 15 years. The Spartans are without seven players from last year’s team, which won 29 games, including the Big Ten tournament final, before being stunned in the opening round of the NCAA tournament to Middle Tennessee State.
Denzel Valentine, The Associated Press national player of the year, was one of four players who moved onto professional basketball. Another player graduated and is in medical school at Vanderbilt. Two more players chose to transfer, seeking more playing time.
The last time Izzo had that many departures was 2001, when the Spartans went to a third straight Final Four and also had to replace seven players.
Instead of being anxious about the challenge, he is fired up.
“That’s invigorating, to be honest,” Izzo said Thursday at his team’s media day.
In addition to the departures, the Spartans have to cope with the losses — for at least the start of the season — of two senior forward due to injuries. Ben Carter, a graduate transfer from UNLV, had knee surgery last week and Gavin Schilling will have knee surgery soon.
That will put even more pressure on perhaps Izzo’s best recruiting class led by possibly the best player he has brought to campus since taking over the program in 1995.
Highly touted Miles Bridges leads the group that includes Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward.
“I could see us starting four freshmen sooner than later,” Izzo said.
Bridges, a 6-foot-7 forward from Flint, is ready for the challenge of producing with all eyes on him.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “But I don’t let it get to me.”
Winston, a 6-foot point guard from Detroit, has lived up to high praise Izzo gave while talking to assistant coach Dwayne Stephens about him three years ago.
“I said he could be the best passer since Magic Johnson in this state,” Izzo recalled telling Stephens. “Two weeks or three weeks of practice has not changed my opinion.”
Langford, a 6-5 guard from Alabama, will get a chance to play a lot in part because Izzo plans to put two guards, two wings and one post player on the court to play “small ball,” out of necessity.
Ward, a 6-8, 250-pound forward from Ohio, has a chance to play a pivotal role in the post without Schilling and Carter. Ward has lost more than 20 pounds to prepare him for the opportunity.
“I feel a lot lighter,” he said.” I jump a little higher and I can get up and down the court better.”
While Izzo will lean on his freshmen to play early and often, senior guard Eron Harris will get the green light to shoot much more than he did last season in his first year with the team after being a high-scoring guard as a freshman and sophomore at West Virginia. Senior Alvin Ellis, who said he didn’t consider transferring as Javon Bess and Marvin Clark did, junior Tum Tum Narin and sophomore Matt McQuaid give the team some relatively experienced options in the backcourt. Like Ward, 6-6 sophomore Kenny Goins is going to get every chance to play on a team that has a thin frontcourt.
As usual, Michigan State will have a tough schedule. For the first time, though, they may play three or more top-15 teams in November for the first time. And, they will fly more than 13,600 miles over a 22-day stretch that will include games in Hawaii, New York, the Bahamas and North Carolina at Duke.
“We’re going to find out a lot in the first month, which might not be healthy for me,” Izzo said.