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Preseason Musings: Expectations

Five Final Fours in eleven years.

It's a fabulous factoid, one that rolls off the tongue (or computer keyboard) of any and every Michigan State basketball fan with glee.  It clearly establishes us as one of the elite teams of the last decade and a legitimate contender for the title of the top college basketball program over the last 10-12 years (not to mention one of the most stable programs in the country over that time).

MSU's lofty #2 national ranking going into the 2009-10 season reflects the program's status in the eyes of national observers.  Regardless of how much basketball ability is housed on a team's roster, you don't get ranked that high in a preseason poll without a well-established reputation for success.  Witness the other 5 teams among the consensus top 6 in the two preseason polls: Kansas, Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Villanova.  Those are some college basketball aristocrats.

Is the ranking justified?  On paper, yes.  A team that was among the top 8 regular season performers and advanced all the way to the national title game last season returns 7 of its top 9 contributors from the NCAA Tournament run.   No team in the country (even Kansas, which is ranked #1 based largely on the return of two consensus All-Americans) can make a comparable statement.

But they don't play the games on paper.  The question that looms over the heads of Spartan basketball fans going into Friday's regular season opener is: Can this team really be as good as we/they/everyone thinks they should be?

In spite of the 5-Final-Fours-in-11-years factoid, the program's track record in meeting high preseason expectations hasn't been all that good in recent years.  The table below shows, for each of the 12 consecutive years Tom Izzo has guided the team to the NCAA Tournament, MSU's (1) preseason ranking in the AP poll, (2) ranking in the AP final poll (which occurs between the end of the regular season and the start of the NCAA Tournament), (3) seed in the NCAA Tournament, and (4) final tournament outcome.

Season Preseason
AP Rank
AP Rank
NCAA Result
1997-98 -- 16 4 Sweet 16
1998-99 5 2 1 Final 4
1999-2000 3 2 1 Nat Champ
2000-01 3 3 1 Final 4
2001-02 15 -- 10 1st Rd Loss
2002-03 9 -- 7 Elite 8
2003-04 3 -- 7 1st Rd Loss
2004-05 13 15 5 Final 4
2005-06 4 -- 6 1st Rd Loss
2006-07 -- -- 9 2nd Rd Loss
2007-08 8 18 5 Sweet 16
2008-09 6 8 2 Nat Runner Up

Negative spin:

  • MSU has not met/exceeded its preseason ranking in the final AP poll since 2001.
  • Between 2002 and 2008, MSU was ranked in the top 10 four times, but failed to finish higher than #18 in any of those four years.
  • The team went through a six-year stretch in which it was not ranked in the top 25 in the final AP poll in all but one season.
  • 2009 was the first season in which the team earned an NCAA seed higher than #5 since 2001.

The NCAA Tournament results have continued to be as good as just about anyone's, but the post-2001 results have all come somewhat unexpectedly on the heels of relatively disappointing regular season results: making the Elite 8 as a #7 seed in 2003, reaching the Final Four as #5 seed in 2005, getting to a Sweet Sixteen by pulling off the (marginal) 5-over-4 upset in 2008, advancing all the way to the title game despite not being a #1 seed in 2009.

Contrast those events with the remarkable consistency of the Golden Era of 1999-2001: top-5 rankings in both the preseason and final AP polls, #1 seeds in the tournament, and Final Four appearances in all three seasons.

Now, to be fair, last season doesn't really belong in the negatively-spun post-2001 story I've told.  The team dropped just 2 spots from its preseason ranking to its final regular season ranking, despite dealing with two pretty serious health situations along the way.  The 2009 team was the first MSU squad to finish in the final AP top 10 in 8 years.  All things considered, the team met expectations in the regular season--and more than exceeded them in the NCAA Tournament.  The tournament run was straight out of a storybook (except for the part about the evil Tarheel attackers overrunning our defenses in the final game).

This year, the expectations are even higher.  To be honest, I don't have much of an intuitive feel for whether the team will meet them.  This time a year ago, in a post with a title similar to this post's, I foresaw good things: a 15-3 conference record and a potential Final Four run in the tournament.  But that team just felt more like a classic Tom Izzo team: a balanced roster of 10+ players with varying skills, strengths, and levels of experience.  If everyone played the role they seemed suited for (Lucas as offensive leader, Walton as defensive stopper, Suton as versatile big man, etc.), good things were almost bound to happen.

This year, the numerical depth still seems to be there, but it's not quite the same kind of depth.  The departures of Travis Walton and Goran Suton mean the team's returning talent skews more toward offense than toward defense.  And the additional losses of Marquise Gray and Idong Ibok mean Tom Izzo will be relying entirely on underclassmen (and an inexperienced junior in Tom Herzog) on the front line.  It's less clear which roles everyone slides into this year.

Big picture, the burden is on the more experienced core of perimeter players--Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan, Chris Allen, Durrell Summers, and Korie Lucious--to carry the team.  If that happens, it will probably be more by scoring points efficiently than by preventing opponents from doing the same.  While MSU has, as often as not, been better on offense than on defense in recent years, it still just doesn't feel right for a Tom Izzo-coached team to be pointing to its scoring ability as its major strength going into a season.

And, despite the relative experience of the five perimeter players, most of them are still somewhat unknown quantities.  Lucas is the exception, of course.  He's the returning Big Ten Player of the Year.  Even if he doesn't repeat that honor, he's going to be all-conference performer and a contender to be an All-American.  Raymar Morgan, on the other hand, has a much wider range of potential performance: he could plausibly be an All-American, and he could end up merely a solid second- or third-team all-conference pick.

Allen and Summers have both shown flashes of offensive-star ability in their first two seasons, but it remains to be seen whether they can become consistent starter-level contributors on a national contender.  Finally, Lucious could form a lethally-quick and efficient backcourt combo with Lucas, but (particularly in light of missing an offseason's worth of development due to injury) that may have to wait a year.

The collective outlook for this team is perhaps analogous to the individual outlook for Raymar Morgan: The team could, indeed, be a top-5 caliber squad that contends for a national title 5 months from now.  Or it could turn out to be a talented, but flawed, team that drops 7-8 games in the regular season and only advances to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Time will tell.  For now, I say we embrace the high expectations.  The defensive move as a fan would be to say that last season was (almost) as good as it gets; let's not expect the same sort of success in consecutive seasons.  But, if this program is truly on the path to long-term eliteness, annually-lofty expectations come with the territory.

So with high expectations fully embraced, I foresee the following:

  • A 12-1 nonnconference record.  That means beating two good, but clearly less talented, teams (Gonzaga/Florida) in home/neutral settings and then knocking off one of two equally-talented teams (North Carolina/Texas) in more hostile settings.  I'll say we beat a very young UNC team on their home court but lose to Texas in Austin.
  • A 14-4 conference record.  We drop, at most, one game at the Breslin Center; beat Iowa, Penn State, and Indiana on the road; and pull off road wins in 2-3 games against the 6 potential NCAA Tournament teams we play on the road (no Ohio State).
  • That'd be good for a 26-5 record and, hopefully, at least a share of the Big Ten title going into postseason play.  The Big Ten Tournament is always a crapshoot; if we're setting expectations high, though, a match-up with Purdue in the final (to perhaps break a regular season tie) would be lovely.
  • Nothing's guaranteed in the NCAA Tournament, which is what makes it such a fabulous sporting event, but if everything plays out to form in the regular season, nothing short of another trip to Indianapolis (hopefully as a #1 seed) would be satisfactory.

Beyond the roster-gelling issue, there are two other obvious obstacles to be overcome if the path laid out above is to be traversed.  First, the plethora of injuries that is already plaguing this team has to fade fairly quickly.  (Note: Things are looking a little better in that department.)  Second, the Big Ten has to be good, but not too good.  Michigan, Ohio State, and Minnesota all look like teams destined to be seeded somewhere between 4 and 6 in the NCAA Tournament.  If one or more of them takes one more step up on the basketball ladder, getting through the conference slate with just 4 losses becomes a dicier proposition and a #1 or #2 NCAA Tournament seed perhaps slips out of reach.

Every season has its obstacles, though.  Last year's team overcame those obstacles in ways that teams from the previous six seasons had been unable to (or were unable to during the regular season, at least).  If this year's team can show the same resiliency last year's team did, the sky's the limit.

Six Final Fours in twelve years.

That rolls off the tongue even more smoothly, doesn't it?  (Round numbers!)  Let the quest commence.