There were some major attractions at Big Ten media days this week. You should’ve seen Kofi Cockburn. The Illinois big man remains a marvel of size and space. Hunter Dickinson walked in with the gait of man who’s drawn preseason All-America attention. Trevion Williams wore a well-tailored suit, showing off a slimmed down frame. He looked like a different guy. Trayce Jackson-Davis and E.J. Liddell drew crowds of reporters, all leaning in close. Jaden Ivey might’ve been shorter and smaller than all the above, but carried just as much hype.
Few leagues in the country can match the Big Ten’s star power this year. The conference’s best players are proven commodities. Each one received preseason player-of-the-year votes in this week’s media poll. Usually, the league has a star here or a star there, not multiple legitimate potential All-Americans scattered across multiple programs.
And then there’s Michigan State.
What an odd juxtaposition. The program typically counted among the Big Ten’s preseason favorites and recent winner of three straight conference championships (2018-20), the Spartans occupy the very odd space of under-the-radar team with nonexistent preseason expectations. Tom Izzo drew an audience of reporters in Indianapolis on Friday, but it was more so for his typical song and dance of quote-worthy quips than it was about answering questions about his team trying to win a league title or return to the Final Four.
“It sucks,” he joked.
While multiple other programs, including rival Michigan, brought player of the year candidates to annual media day festivities, the Spartans brought Gabe Brown and Malik Hall, two upperclassmen with a combined 710 career points. Both have averaged about 16 minutes per game in college. Neither has ever earned all-conference honors.
There exists a chasm here, you see, between what Michigan State is as a program and its current place in the league’s pecking order.
“It’s OK once in a while,” Izzo said Friday of being picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten’s preseason poll. “I don’t want to have a steady diet of it, but I think it brings humility and it brings understanding and it reinforces in your own mind, why did we get where we are? What happened? What did we do?”
The stank of last season still wafts. It’s a testament to Izzo and his program that a season ending with an NCAA Tournament appearance can be described that way, but that’s the way it is. The 2020-21 campaign in East Lansing was an uncomfortable squeeze of COVID-19 related struggles combined with an ill-fitting roster that lacked anything resembling competent point guard play. After laboring to a 4-9 start in conference play, the Spartans ended up needing a late-season rally of top-10 wins to earn a bid to play in the First Four. For most programs, the turnaround would be a mark of season success. But Michigan State isn’t most other programs. There was the persistent feeling that the Spartans should never have been in such a situation in the first place.
As 2021-22 arrives, expectations are inevitably being pulled through the keyhole of what unfolded a year ago. It’s strange to ignore a program with eight Final Four appearances under its current head coach, but that’s where things stand with 30-some-odd days remaining until the season gets underway.