McNeese St.-Michigan St. Preview

The Associated Press

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- - Michigan State will find out how good it is, early and often.

The second-ranked Spartans will play No. 1 Kentucky on Tuesday in Chicago. After that, coach Tom Izzo has set up a schedule - as usual - to show his players, the public and himself just how Michigan State matches up.

In a one-month span, the Spartans will play Virginia Tech, Oklahoma or Seton Hall in a tournament, host perennial power North Carolina and travel to face Texas.

And in the middle of a grueling Big Ten slate, Michigan State will meet Georgetown in New York on Feb. 1, the day before the Super Bowl is played nearby, instead of taking an eight-day break between conference games.

''It's going to be a fun place and a great event and another tough team,'' said Izzo, whose team opens the season Friday night at home against McNeese State.

Izzo won a national championship in 2000 in one of six Final Four appearances over his 18-year career. Since 2001, he hasn't liked the Spartans' shot to contend for a national championship as much as he does now.

''Other than that, I don't think we've ever had as good of a chance,'' Izzo said.

It's easy to see why a man who often makes himself miserable by worrying is fired up these days. The Spartans have four starters returning and six of their top seven scorers back from a team that went 27-9 and advanced to the NCAA tournament's round of 16.

Seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling don't want to be the first players in Izzo's program to stay four years and fail to make it to the Final Four. Appling and Payne said they talk about that every day. The Spartans will start the season ranked as one of the elite teams in college basketball, but Appling is more interested in how they finish.

"We all know that preseason rankings don't mean anything other than people respect us as a team,'' Appling said. ''The only thing that matters if we're No. 1 at the end of the year.''

Gary Harris returned for his sophomore season to win an NCAA championship, putting his dream of playing in the NBA on hold for at least another year. If the Spartans are doing anything but cutting down nets after the national title game April 7 in Cowboys Stadium, the shooting guard will consider the season a bust.

''We don't want to just get to the Final Four,'' the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year said. ''We want to win the national championship. If we don't reach that, I'll feel like we failed.''

Michigan State is missing only one player, center Derrick Nix, from last year's team. Nix averaged nearly 10 points and seven rebounds. Matt Costello, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, will probably start and share playing time with 6-9 junior Alex Gauna.

The Spartans, though, may put Payne at center sometimes with a smaller lineup that could include 6-6 junior Branden Dawson and the 6-4 Harris in an athletic frontcourt with Appling and junior Travis Trice in the backcourt.

Unlike last year at this time, the Spartans are healthy. Trice was slowed by what Izzo said was a ''brain infection'' that led to him dropping 22 pounds off his slight frame. Dawson was dealing - physically and mentally - with a comeback from surgery on his left knee. He played in all 36 games last year but rarely looked like the player who was talented enough to be a McDonald's All-American.

Dawson said he's dunking like he used to and is shooting better than he ever has after improving his mechanics.

''I'm in much better shape than I was last year,'' he said. ''The mental aspect, it was hard for me. But now, I'm not even thinking about it.''

His team might be thinking ahead to next week's matchup with Kentucky, considering McNeese State isn't expected to provide much of a challenge.

The Cowboys are coming off a 14-17 campaign and will be missing their best player because Desharick Guidry, who averaged team highs of 12.6 points and 7.5 rebounds last season, was suspended for the first nine games due to academics.

McNeese State has never faced Michigan State and is 0-3 all-time against Big Ten foes.

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