Michigan State University head basketball coach Tom Izzo was the first men’s basketball coach to take to the podium early on Friday morning on the floor of Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the newly renamed home of the Indiana Pacers in downtown Indianapolis.
He only had 10 minutes to address the media and answer questions during the morning session, but he had a lot to say about his team, the Big Ten and some of the other big issues of college basketball.
Sizing Up the Competition
Coach Izzo opened by commenting on the venue for this year. He said:
“There is no question for me, Indianapolis has been an incredible place, both for Final Fours and the Big Ten tournament. This year hopefully will be no different.”
Fairly quickly, Izzo made a reference to the media’s perception of Michigan State’s place in the Big Ten. He mentioned that it is not very common for him to be looking up at four or five other teams that are picked ahead of MSU in the preseason. But, he felt that it was reasonable.
“I think we’re a little bit more unproven and I think there’s some teams in our league that are very proven,” Izzo said. “There (are) some incredible teams and players in our league....The coaches in this league are phenomenal. They are phenomenal. We just added a couple new ones that are really good, too.”
That said, Coach Izzo later added, “I get a kick out of people picking things in magazines, nobody even knows who everybody has with the transfers, who is going to adjust, who is going to come in, who is it going to work out for, who is going to be a bust. Those are going to be factors as we move forward in this season. I think it’s going to be an exciting year.”
When it came to discussing Michigan State’s current roster, the question on everyone’s mind was the point guard position. Coach Izzo was pretty open in admitting that things were not ideal at that spot during the 2020-2021 season.
“We were trying to put round pegs in square holes last year,” Izzo said about the point guard spot. “That lands on the head coach, nobody else.”
But, Izzo seems excited about the point guard position this year.
“I think we’re better because I think we have a couple guys that will play the point guard position...A.J. Hoggard has really improved, lost some weight,” Izzo said. “I think it’s going to be a definite positive for us. Tyson Walker, a transfer from Northeastern — who was Defensive Player of the Year, still found a way to score 17, 18 points a game — is going to be a great help there.”
Coach Izzo even mentioned that fans might see both Walker and Hoggard playing together at times this year.
“Unlike football, where you kind of get one quarterback, that’s it, in basketball you definitely can play two guys,” Izzo remarked. “The way Tyson (Walker) shoots it, I think these guys can play together some, too. I think you’ll see some of that.”
As for the relationship between Walker and Hoggard, it does not seem to be an issue.
“They’re both from the same neck of the country, Philadelphia, New Jersey area, New York,” Izzo said. “They’re very good friends. It’s been seamless so far.”
Overall, Izzo expects the offense to flow better compared to last year. He said:
“I think we’re going to be a better passing team, a better running team...I think because we’re going to have guys that can penetrate and kick more, pass more, I think Hauser, Hall, Christie, Gabe Brown are going to benefit a lot.”
The Rest of the Roster
Coach Izzo didn’t spend all of his time talking about the point guard position. He had lots to say about the rest of his roster.
“Right now we feel we are eight, nine, 10 players deep,” Izzo said. “We have some experience in Malik Hall, Joey Hauser, Marcus Bingham, guys that have been through the wars and played 20 minutes a game...The guys had a great spring, summer and falls.
“Yet we have a couple of freshmen that I think are going to be really, really good, led by Max Christie, who I think could be the best recruited guard since Gary Harris, who had a great career and is playing in the NBA.”
As for other players in the rotation Coach Izzo had the following to say:
“I think Jaden Akins is going to make a big difference, and could be a rotational player. Mady Sissoko and Julius Marble are two big guys, maybe not as big as some of the big guys in this league. It will be interesting.
“Last year we ended up going small at the end of the year. I played Aaron Henry at the four some, beat top-five teams. Everybody is going to be doing some chess work. You’re going to have to mix and match guys.
“I think the most successful teams I’ve had are the ones that are very versatile. You can play big, you can play small, fast, you can play slow. I think in the Big Ten you’ve got to be able to do that...If we get a running game going, we’ll be able to utilize their depth a little bit more.”
Thoughts on the Portal
The transfer portal had an enormous impact on Michigan State’s roster during the offseason of 2021. The Spartans said “goodbye” to Rocket Watts, Thomas Kithier, Foster Loyer and walk-on Jack Hoiberg. But, they also said “hello” to walk-ons Michael Peterson (Ferris State) and Jason Whitens (Western Michigan), and scholarship point guard Tyson Walker (Northeastern).
When Coach Izzo was asked about the transfer portal, he had a lot to say:
“I’ve been pretty vocal about the transfer rule,” Izzo said. “The one thing I’ll stick with is that I am in for anything that will help the student-athletes. But, sometimes giving people things, options, create problems for them.
“I just worry about all the movement and what are they moving for. When the going gets tough, are we bolting or hanging in there? I’m more worried about what does it do to the student-athlete.
“I think of how many guys we’ve had as we’ve had reunions, even two weeks ago, how many guys would have transferred if it was the modern day? I think that’s what scares me the most.
“We’re still going to try to recruit the four-year guys, sprinkle it in if we have to get somebody from the portal or not. The jury is still out on that, I think. I have some concerns. I think there will be some unintended consequences as we learned at the end of the summer where there’s still a couple hundred guys that didn’t have a place to go. I’m concerned about it.”
Getting Back to Normal
The 2020-2021 college basketball season was one like no other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the coaches at Big Ten Media Days talked about how excited they were to have things starting to get back to normal, including having fans back in the arenas. Coach Izzo also reflected on the impact of COVID and how Michigan State and the rest of the conference is moving forward.
“Some (players) dealt with COVID different than others,” Izzo said. “Unfortunately we were hit in the middle of the year. Yeah, it rocked us a little bit. Maybe (COVID affected) some confidence both in players and in coaches. But we’re through that now.
“I’m anxious to have those fans back. I mean, even when you go on the road, there’s nothing like going to Purdue or Indiana, the Wisconsin rivalries we’ve had over the years. There’s nothing like that. (Those are) some of the greatest venues in the country, much less in the Big Ten.
“I’m looking forward to that. I’m sure the fans are looking forward to that. I think everybody’s looking forward to it. I’m sure the officials are looking forward to it, to be honest.”
Coach Izzo even had a few light-hearted comments about the officials and the media as he closed out his time at the podium.
“Since I’ve been in the league 37 years, it was strange,” Izzo said. “I never found a cardboard cutout that could yell at an official, so it wasn’t a lot of fun for me.”
He later added: “I’m looking forward to normalcy, looking forward to fans in the stands. I’m even looking forward to having some face-to-face with you guys and gals (in the media). It’s kind of boring when you do it on Zoom — can’t get in any arguments. I’m looking forward to getting back with all of you. I appreciate what you did last year, how you sacrificed. Looking forward to seeing you all together.”
Stay tuned to The Only Colors for continuing coverage of Big Ten Media Days and the upcoming college basketball season.