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Mike Lopresti | | November 4, 2019

How Michigan State handles being college basketball's preseason No. 1 team

Michigan State leads a deep Big Ten filled with tournament teams

Let's have a peek in Tom Izzo's office. There's a good chance he's in there talking to. . .a Spartan player. Man-to-man, one-on-one. So it has gone this fall at sky's-the-limit Michigan State.

The Spartans are the Associated Press preseason No. 1 for the first time; a national championship contender with promises to keep. High expectations are as customary a sight in East Lansing each winter as snow plows, but seem particularly lofty this season, what with player of the year candidate Cassius Winston and an experienced roster back from a Final Four team. To fulfill the promise — and maybe end Izzo's long quest for a second title — will require persistence and focus and not being caught up in the noise.

So. . .

"You know what there's been more of? There's been more meetings," Izzo was saying. "There's been more half-hour talks in my office with each guy. I sat Cassius down a week with different topics every night. Just trying to let them know this is going to be a little different, they're going to have to handle it a little different."

Why? Well, Izzo mentioned the 2010-11 season, when the Spartans started out ranked No. 2, and had the looks of a juggernaut. On paper. They finished 19-15, barely slipped into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed, and were quickly evicted. That is Izzo's parable to this current bunch.

GRAND OPENING: No. 1 Michigan State opens against No. 2 Kentucky

"One of the few times I thought we totally underachieved," he said. "The advantage of being an experienced coach is, we remember those things. The disadvantage is, telling players that, they think you're speaking a foreign language. Like all of us, until you go through something, it never hits home the same. If we're going to be great, they've got to listen. That's why there's been a lot more spending time with just a player."

They would appear to be paying attention.

Winston: "It's just having the mindset we have to go out there and prove it. You can have all the hype, if you don't back it up, it's all going to go away."

Xavier Tillman: "When you are coming into the season ranked as high as we are, it's kind of like OK, now we really have to be sure we handle our business, because we have those outside expectations that we're supposed to be so good. And with that, comes a big responsibility, not only for our team but our community, that we step up in all areas."

Besides, these players have their own point of reference for disappointment — the bad taste from the Final Four loss to Texas Tech last spring.

That must linger.

"Yes. I've been waiting on that question," Tillman said. "I remember walking off the court, and felt like, OK, now I know what it tastes like. I gave the arena one last look and thought, 'I'm ready to play in a big-time arena like this, and I'm ready to face a big-time game like this against a big-time team like this.' Instead of, 'Oh my gosh, I'm here, I can't believe we're in the Final Four.'"

To prove their intentions of keeping their eyes on the prize, the players have sworn off Twitter. For a college kid in 2019, you can't make a much more powerful gesture than that. Though — who would rather have his gums scraped than tweet — mentioned, "Except they've got these other things. If they change Twitter into Snapchat or something else, it's still a waste of time."

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Oh, well. One day at a time, one game at a time, one social media outlet at a time. The Spartans understand the theme well enough.

"I think we have a lot of good pieces on our team, a lot of kids on our team who are hungry," Winston said. "You've got that taste, and that's never enough. You want that whole thing."

Same for the coach. This is Izzo's 25th season, with a program that wears green but whose blood is 100 percent blue. His legacy is stuffed with Final Four trips and Big Ten trophies — but only one national championship, and that was two decades ago.

"What excites me about year 25 is we've really been pretty damn consistent, and that means a lot to me," he said. "It's easy to have a good team or a good couple of years, but to be consistent. Where every year you think you have a chance to win the league or every year you think you have a chance to go deep into the tournament — I couldn't ask for more out of my career so far. Now this year I'm going to ask for more out of my career, because I'd like to win that second one sometime."

FATHER-SON MOMENT: Steven Izzo scores his first point at Michigan State

Title No. 2 is not an obsession, but it is the logical and heartfelt quest for a competitive and successful man. Izzo is too driven not to think that way, and too honest not to admit it.

"I don't think I have to win another one to validate what I've done. I think I have to win another one to validate what I want. And that's different. You guys (the media) think we should do this or that, and I [complain] about you guys saying those things sometimes — and I think I want it more than you guys do. So why am I [complaining] at you guys, when I probably want what you probably want?"

Besides, Izzo turns 65 in January. Might be a little urgency to get that accomplished soon, for a coach who will become eligible for Medicare during the season.

  Missing content item.

"I don’t even really want to talk about it," he said, "because I don’t plan on being done anytime soon."

So bring on the No. 1 ranking. Bring on the pressure and expectations. Bring on Kentucky in the season opener Nov. 5. Plus Seton Hall, Virginia Tech, Duke and maybe Kansas in the first month.  That'd include the three preseason favorites in the ACC, Big East and Big 12. It won't take long for the Spartans to see what needs to be fixed.

Speaking of Kentucky, Izzo brought up November 2014, when the mighty Wildcats started the season at No. 1.

"They had the 40-0 shirts. We aren't making any of those. No. 1, the schedule we play. No. 2, that puts so much more pressure on a team. We're not that kind of team. We're just not talented enough game in and game out."

That Kentucky team went unbeaten to the Final Four, but it was Duke who cut down the nets. Izzo expects potholes, and has already hit one, with Joshua Langford out until at last January with a foot injury. But in the end, he wants that shining moment again. He knows it. His players know it. Everyone knows it.

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