Michigan State’s spot in the Top 25 and its Big Ten title hopes are intact as it begins the 2007-08 season.
The Spartans’ pride, however, may not be.
After losing an exhibition game to Division II Grand Valley State and barely surviving to beat the Lakers’ conference rival Michigan Tech, the No. 12 Spartans open the regular season Tuesday night at home against Division I independent Chicago State in the CBE Classic.
The Spartans were ranked eighth the Preseason AP Top 25, but dropped four spots this week. Michigan State fell 85-82 in double overtime to Grand Valley State on Nov. 2 and managed to hang on for a 61-55 win over Michigan Tech on Wednesday.
Despite watching his team struggle against a pair of opponents from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, though, coach Tom Izzo isn’t discouraged.
“I thought we played well in our exhibition games,” said Izzo, whose squad was the media’s preseason pick to win the Big Ten. “We are trying to play a lot of people, which will get pared down some now, but we’ve got to get everybody back (playing).”
Perhaps Izzo’s biggest concern is making sure forward Raymar Morgan is in the lineup. The sophomore, named to the Big Ten all-freshman team last season, missed the Michigan Tech game with what Izzo described as some “academic things that he needed to take care of.”
The Spartans are coming off a 23-12 season in which they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Every significant contributor from that team returns, including Preseason All-American guard Drew Neitzel.
With the losses of key scorers Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager following the 2005-06 season, Neitzel was called upon to become more productive offensively from the point guard position. He did just that, boosting his 8.3-point average to 18.1 and getting named to the All-Big Ten first team.
“It’s great to be rated high in the preseason,” Neitzel said. “But we know as a team that it doesn’t matter where we are right now. Come March, that’s when we want to be ranked really high.”
Michigan State took its usually fast-paced offense down a notch last season as Neitzel worked to become more comfortable with his new role and the sophomore trio of Travis Walton, Goran Suton and Marquise Gray adjusted to playing big minutes.
Izzo, though, expects that to change - quickly - this season.
“After being forced to slow it down last year, I am pretty determined to run from the day we start,” he said.
Neitzel not only led the Big Ten in scoring last season, he averaged the most minutes at more than 36 minutes per game during league play. With freshman guards Kalin Lucas, Chris Allen and Durrell Summers in the mix for playing time, Neitzel may be able to get some more rest - something he’ll need with Izzo’s return to an up-tempo offense.
Morgan, though, may hold the key to Michigan State’s success this season. If the swingman can make the leap from the all-freshman team to All-Big Ten, Michigan State could find itself making another trip to the Final Four. The Spartans have reached the national semifinals four times in the past nine seasons under Izzo.
“I think he’s improved his shooting a lot,” Izzo said of Morgan, who was 121-for-249 (48.6 percent) from the field last season. “He’s more comfortable on the perimeter.”
Chicago State (0-1) is a team the Spartans should be familiar with. The Cougars, who went 9-20 in 2006-07, came to the Breslin Center on Dec. 16 and hung in before falling 69-61 in the schools’ first meeting. Neitzel had 32 points as Michigan State held on for the victory.
Though two of their three leading scorers - junior David Holston and sophomore John Cantrell - return, Chicago State has nine new players on its roster.
The Cougars lost 96-85 at Cal State Northridge in their season opener Saturday despite leading 52-44 at the half.