Title thoughts propel Tom Izzo, No. 4 Michigan State into opener

Tom Izzo won a national championship when he was 45 years old. He’s accomplished many things since 2000, including his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, but at 68 the longtime Michigan State coach is still chasing a second national title.

The Spartans begin their season against James Madison at East Lansing on Monday and believe they have enough talent and depth to make the title dream a reality. Izzo doesn’t want to squander another chance.

“I told them in one huddle, ‘This is not last year; it’s not the years before,'” Izzo said. “I mean, I’m sick of finishing before April. So, guys are going to have to play (well) and that’s up to them and not up to me.”

The Spartans, ranked No. 4 in the preseason, are aiming for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament to facilitate their ultimate goal.

“Sometimes it’s just luck of the draw,” he said. “If we keep knocking on the door, maybe one way would be, let’s get to be a higher seed this year. That way we don’t have to have more success (as a lower-seeded team). Let’s be better on the front end and then maybe we can continue on through.”

In an era when transferring has become the norm, the Spartans have virtually all their rotation players back from last season, plus some talented freshmen to provide competition.

Michigan State, which lost to Kansas State in the Final Eight last season, could have arguably the top backcourt in the country. Tyson Walker led the team last season at 14.8 points per game. A.J. Hoggard was the team’s third-leading scorer (12.9) and topped the Spartans in assists (5.9). Jaden Akins (9.8) finished fourth in scoring.

“Everybody could leave, that’s the way it is now,” Izzo said. “These guys stayed and they went through failure. And they’ve been through some success.”

The frontcourt returnees include Mady Sissoko, Malik Hall, Carson Cooper and Jaxon Kohler. They’ll be pushed by highly touted freshman Xavier Booker. Jeremy Fears Jr. will angle for playing time in the backcourt and another freshman, Coen Carr, will fortify the wing.

James Madison finished last season 22-11 and lost in the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament.

The Dukes were picked by the league’s coaches to finish first this season and Terrence Edwards was named to its preseason all-conference first team. He was named the Sun Belt’s Sixth Man of the Year last season while leading them in both scoring (13.3 ppg) and 3-point percentage (.458).

James Madison has 12 upperclassmen on its roster, including five transfers.

“Preseason rankings don’t mean anything to us,” Edwards told the Daily News-Record. “We know what we want, we know what we want to do. We want to finish first, we don’t want to start first. That’s the goal. Keep getting better and better every day and every week, that’s our goal.”

Head coach Mark Byington echoed Edwards’ sentiments.

“Us being picked No. 1, it’s not something we even talk about or think about,” Byington said. “We talk about being the best version of ourselves. Truthfully, if you see where teams are picked preseason, very rarely does it come true or it has very little meaning on the outcome.”