Was last year considered a “down” season for Michigan State basketball? In the eyes of Tom Izzo, yes.

The Spartans return to the court following a 2nd round exit in the NCAA Tournament last March. Sure, MSU kept its 24-year Tournament streak alive and finished 23-13, but Izzo wasn’t at all satisfied with an 11-9 Big Ten mark.

None of that matters moving forward, and Izzo is still going strong. But with legends like UNC’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski calling it a career as of late, could Izzo turn in the whistle next? Could the coming season’s outcome weight that decision?

Here are 10 things to remember about Michigan State’s program entering its regular-season opener Monday against Northern Arizona.

1. Key departures

Leading scorer Gabe Brown is off to the pros. So is Marcus Bingham Jr., who averaged 9.3 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds. Those moves were expected. Others weren’t in the cards.

Max Christie elected to go pro after 1 season and was drafted in the 2nd round by the Los Angeles Lakers. He was expected to take over as the team’s leading scorer after averaging 9.3 points per game as a freshman. Big man Julius Marble elected to transfer to Texas A&M to be close to home following the passing of his father.

The top 3 scorers for MSU last year are on different rosters. Two more long-term prospects with upside left for different programs in the offseason. So there’s a new feel around the program entering Week 1.

2. A pair of dual-sport athletes?

MSU’s depth might be depleted early in the season due to the status of Keon Coleman and Maliq Carr. Coleman is 1 of the top scorers for the Spartans’ football team and has emerged as MSU’s top receiver. Carr, a 6-foot-5 guard, also plays tight end and currently has 7 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.

Both players will be questionable to begin the season as their commitment is to the gridiron. If the Spartans don’t make a bowl game, though, Izzo might get his reinforcements sooner than expected. Neither played much a year ago as freshmen, and probably won’t be major factors this season.

But it’s still intriguing to see multi-sport athletes at the major college level. They’re not listed on the roster right now; we’ll see they’re added after football season.

3. The new kids on the block

The promising young freshman class gives the Spartans an upside entering 2022.

MSU added 2 top 100 talents, according to 247Sports, in forward Jaxon Kohler (No. 58) and point guard Tre Holloman (No. 78). Kohler played for Southern California Academy and averaged 21.5 points per game. Holloman, a 4-star out of Minnesota, averaged 18.8 points, 10.4 assists, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 steals as the leading man for Cretin-Derham Hall.

Kohler should push for minutes off the bench in the frontcourt due to his size (6-10, 250) and ability to create mismatches in the paint and rebound. Holloman likely is viewed as a long-term piece, but could potentially play minutes late in lopsided games to get his feet wet.

As a program, Michigan State ranked 36th in recruiting for the 2022 cycle, according to 247Sports. The ranking is the lowest for MSU since 2020 when it ranked outside the top 50.

4. Son of a legend

Although he might not play much during his time with the program, the Spartans have Great Lakes State royalty on their roster with the addition of Nick Sanders. One might have heard the surname before if you grew up in Michigan. You likely rooted for his famous father torching NFL defenses on Sundays.

Yes, that Sanders. Barry will be making multiple trips to the arena this season in hopes of watching his son play. And who knows? Maybe like his Hall of Fame dad, 5-foot-9 freshman walk-on Nick Sanders ends up wowing the masses before he’s done.

5. All eyes on Akins

Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism for Sparty to rebound in 2022 is the potential of Jaden Akins, though his status remains in question to begin the season.

Izzo told reporters last month that Akins would need to “practice consistently” before taking the court this season. The sophomore guard underwent foot surgery for a stress fracture in September. Last season off the bench, he averaged 3.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and shot 38% from 3-point range.

Izzo won’t rush Akins back to the court for fear of further injury. That’s understandable, but the reality is the Spartans have an uphill climb to begin the season. Already limited in depth, the loss of Akins for any amount of games is significant.

Speaking of which …

6. Early struggles?

Following their matchup against Northern Arizona, the Spartans will face a 4-team gauntlet from hell that could dictate the remainder of the season.

On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, MSU takes on No. 2 Gonzaga on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Four days later, the Spartans face No. 4 Kentucky in the 2022 Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Three days later, No. 16 Villanova comes to town in the 1st year of the Kyle Neptune/post-Jay Wright era. Then it’s on to a showdown with No. 20 Alabama as part of the “PK85″ Phil Knight Invitational on Thanksgiving.

Even by Izzo’s standards, that’s a schedule from hell.

7. A new leading man?

Someone has to step up and take the reins as the new No. 1 option. Our pick? AJ Hoggard, a 6-foot-4 guard.

Last season, Hoggard averaged 7 points, 4.8 assists and 2.3 rebounds coming in roughly 20 minutes per game. With Christie now in the pros, Hoggard’s role and minutes should increase.

In an interview with The Athletic, Izzo called Hoggard a ” guy who can guard the world” but needs to show more consistency as a passer. Last season, Hoggard finished 2 games with 10 or more assists, but Izzo is looking for more.

8. An easy stretch?

The best chance for MSU to catch its breath after the brutal opening stretch comes right after Thanksgiving. The Spartans face Notre Dame (11/30), Northwestern (12/4),  Penn State (12/7), Brown (12/10), Oakland (12/21), Buffalo (12/30) and Nebraska (1/3) before taking on Michigan in the cross-state rivalry.

Last year, Notre Dame made the tournament, but failed to advance past the second round. Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern were bottom-dwellers in the B1G, all finishing below .500 in both conference and overall play. Buffalo made it to the NIT, while Brown finished 5-9 in the Ivy League.

This isn’t to say the Spartans aren’t susceptible to being upset, but it’s a stretch of games in which they should be favored without question.

9. Remember Malik Hall

Hall has a chance to be special in 2022. He’s one of the better defensive players on the roster, and has improved his jump shot this offseason, according to Izzo.

A 6-8, 220-pound senior, Hall is the Spartans’ leading returning scorer (8.9 ppg). Defensively, he excelled in the paint late last season, recording 5 steals and a block in the final 7 regular season games.

If he can translate that to 30+ minutes per game, he’ll be a key piece for Izzo.

10. Defense matters

Izzo has always been known for his physical style of play. But last season, the Spartans allowed .971 points per possession, the 3rd-most in Izzo’s 2-decade tenure in East Lansing.

It’s a point of emphasis for the Spartans to get back to their tough defensive ways. Hall is going to challenge shots in the middle. Hoggard should contain the edge. Akins is the wild card, as his questionable tag for the start of the season puts a damper on the team’s outlook early on.

A big factor to the defensive success? Kohler’s progression. The 6-foot-10 freshman seems to be the de facto replacement for the 7-foot Bingham. He’ll need to adapt quickly.

Last season, the Spartans ranked 8th in the Big Ten for defensive efficiency. Improving that position won’t be easy.

Overall outlook

Michigan State is top-heavy. There isn’t much depth, especially proven depth. If the starters play well and are conditioned enough to stay on the court, perhaps there’s an upset of 2 on the schedule. If the freshman can expand their roles, maybe there’s a sense of stability for both short- and long-term success.

The problem is the early schedule. No one in their right mind would like to play 4 ranked opponents (3 at neutral sites) to begin a season. And while there will be favorable matchups in conference play, there’s a 4-game stretch against Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue where wins might be hard to come by.

This is a middle-tier club in the Big Ten for 2022-23. A shot to make the Tournament? Without question. A shot to win the conference? Let’s not be “that guy” with the hot takes, shall we?

Final record: 17-13 (11-9 B1G)