Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 12/16/11

Last year was no doubt a down year in East Lansing, Michigan. The Spartans still won 19 games and made the NCAA Tournament, but that’s definitely below par in a place like Michigan State- where they went to 6 Final Fours in 12 years. And entering the season as the consensus #2 team in all of college basketball, not advancing in the tourney was a huge disappointment.

They had to win some games in the Big Ten Tournament to even qualify, and no one expected that.This is a proverbial rebuilding year, as the Spartans re-loaded at many key positions. There were in no one’s preseason top 25, or even close. Yet here they are ranked #21 in the AP poll, #22 in the coaches and #23 in the Fox Sports polls. Why is this team better than last year’s?

“I think our togetherness is better. I think our energy getting back to our defense and our toughness is better, it’s our inexperience that’s worse,” Tom Izzo said at conference media day.

That kind of sounds a lot like Illinois, and the difference between this year’s Illini and last year’s Illini (see here). It should be interesting what happens when the two teams meet each other twice during Big Ten play.

The preconference is the time we see Tom Izzo often shuffle his lineups trying to see what the right fit will be when things really matter in March. He’s done crazy things like start both Austin Thornton and Garrick the Shermanator Sherman a few times. And last year I spent some time trying to figure out his plan/rationale. Eventually I tweeted out what the starting five should be before the Oakland game, and he started that exact same line up 2 games later. I asked him for some insight.

“Normally we play a lot of guys, 8-9-10 guys and this year that might shrink down because of our depth. I usually try to play talented guys, but I try to play tough guys, like a Matt Painter would do, or Bruce Weber does, sometimes the combination doesn’t always work, because usually we play better games early than most teams. So you figure out who can handle those kind of teams, there is a mission to the madness. It’s not just going back in a laboratory and throwing things around,” Izzo responded.

Very true, this year has seen a lot less shuffling than usual. And he is a very hard guy to figure out.

“It’s kind of funny in recruiting, everyone says do you play freshmen? I’ve started more freshmen than you would believe. I try to give a junior or senior the first opportunity, but I gotta play the best players regardless of class. I generally try to play the best five players who play the best together and it takes awhile to see that,” he said.

As usual Izzo scheduled very tough in the non-con, and that always helps to prepare for March. Win or lose it helps the ol’ RPI and SOS for the tourney profile. State started the year off with traditional ACC powers and top 5 teams North Carolina and Duke. Then they picked up quality wins over Florida State and at Gonzaga, in front of Izzo’s old boss and mentor Jud Heathcote.

“It either prepares ya or it kills ya. It’ll make us better, you just hope it doesn’t decimate your confidence in between, I like the opportunity we got, I like the fact we’ll get to know who we are and what we are, and a lot more pluses than minuses,” he said.

The next four are at home for Sparty (Bowling Green, UMKC, Lehigh and the Big Ten opener versus the Indiana Hoosiers). It’s likely they’ll begin conference play a very solid 11-2.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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