EAST LANSING — Tom Izzo broke into a big smile when talking about his Michigan State basketball players. And not because of the versatility and depth of his roster.
He was beaming because all of his Spartans are fully vaccinated going into Tuesday's first day of practice.
"Every single one of them," Izzo said of his players and staff. "And I say that with great pride, not with arm-twisting."
MSU finished 15-13 and 9-11 in the Big Ten last season and endured COVID-19 issues in January that basically shut down the program for three weeks. The Spartans recovered to make Izzo's 23rd straight NCAA tournament appearance before falling to eventual Final Four participant UCLA in the First Four. They then lost three players — guards Foster Loyer (Davidson) and Rocket Watts (Mississippi State), along with forward Thomas Kithier (Valparaiso) — to the transfer portal.
Izzo said senior Gabe Brown and junior Malik Hall were near-unanimous picks as team captains by the players over the summer and believes this group could become a more player-led team after the disruptions of a year ago.
Izzo brought in Tyson Walker and said the Northeastern transfer and sophomore A.J. Hoggard, whom he said lost 20 pounds will share the point guard position. Though the 26th-year coach said he still does not know who would start (MSU opens practice in the afternoon), Izzo said those two along with Brown, Hall, Marcus Bingham Jr., Joey Hauser and freshmen Max Christie and Jaden Akins would be his top eight going into the season.
His biggest mission right now, though, is getting things back to normal as best and quickly as possible. Izzo said he felt having a football game with tailgating and fans was a big step, and he also implored professors to get back to in-person education and urged the public to join his team in getting vaccinated.
"Why am I talking about this on the first day of basketball season practice?" Izzo said. "Because with the vaccination, getting people back in classes, getting people back to games is as important to me as winning right now. Because I think they all lead winning. I think they all lead to giving our kids a real chance to be student-athletes and enjoy the incredible, incredible highs of some of these events."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Tom Izzo has 'great pride' in this Michigan State team