Last season was not Tom Izzo’s year, to say the least. His Michigan State Spartans had a horrible year, finishing 8th in the Big Ten. They lost in the First Four.

The fact that MSU was in that position, to have to play into the tournament, said everything … and it was basically there because of Izzo’s overall resume. MSU wasn’t a true tournament-worthy team in the eyes of many.

Izzo didn’t have a star point guard, which was alarming. He always has one of those.

MSU finished 15-13 (9-11 B1G), its worst season since having an identical record in 1992-93.

This year, the Spartans aren’t ranked in preseason polls, for the first time since 2006-07.

To say that rebounding in 2021-22 is a must would be an understatement. Izzo has never had back-to-back forgettable seasons. This is an important juncture for the Spartans.

Key losses

Izzo always needs guards. He’s relied upon them for more than 20 years.

Guards Foster Loyer and Rocket Watts entered East Lansing with potential. Watts looked capable of developing into a nice combo guard, while Loyer’s ceiling appeared to be as a secondary option. Well, they both transferred.

And Aaron Henry, Izzo’s best player for the past 2 seasons, moved on to the next phase of his basketball career. Last year, Henry, a junior, averaged nearly 15 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists; he was one of the top players in the Big Ten.

The Spartans will also miss the leadership of Joshua Langford, whose career was overshadowed by constant foot injuries. Despite setbacks, Langford still had a respectable career and averaged 9.7 points as a senior. Langford was always mentioned by Izzo and his fellow players as being an ideal teammate.

Additions

Izzo has another admirable recruiting class, with this year’s haul coming in at No. 12 on the 247Sports Composite team rankings (No. 2 in the Big Ten).

As mentioned, Izzo always relies upon guards, and 4-star Jaden Akins might be the answer to future questions. Right now, he’ll likely just rotate. The Spartans have a PG in Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker.

Izzo has had some talented wing players and some good stretch-4 types, and he has 2 worthy additions to the roster this year: SF Pierre Brooks and SG Max Christie.

Christie, the No. 1 player out of Illinois and No. 19 nationally, is built a lot like former Spartans star Durrell Summers. At 6-6 and 190 pounds, Christie combines sleek power with finesse. He’s a natural shooter and can also take it to the rack.

Brooks could develop into a great high-post option. He’s physical enough to play in the paint and is also an adequate perimeter shooter. The 6-6, 205-pound freshman should see meaningful minutes and find his way into the rotation.

And yes, as mentioned, the Spartans do have what looks to be a clear No. 1 at PG: Walker, who, as a sophomore, won CAA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2020-21.

Izzo loves defensive point guards. He’d almost rather take one who plays excellent defense and sacrifices a little on the offensive end, rather than the other way around. Walker might not be a scorer like Cassius Winston, Kalin Lucas or other past stars, but he’ll definitely be an asset on defense and help the Spartans return to their true style: Grinding defense, smooth offense and in control of tempo.

Returnees

Leadership has always been a key factor in the success of the Spartans, not always talent. Some of Izzo’s best teams were the ones that self-governed. Talent level has never been the end-all, be-all for MSU.

Izzo’s player-coached teams fare well in tournaments too.

This year, it’s no surprise that Malik Hall and Gabe Brown were selected as captains. They’ve been around for a while and have strong ties to past key teammates. They came up under the wings of a few of Izzo’s top recent players.

“Gabe and Malik are 2 of our veterans and great selections by their teammates to serve as the leaders of our team this season,” Izzo said via MSU release. “They’ve had the opportunity to learn and watch under some great leaders over the last few years, guys like Matt McQuaid, Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Joshua Langford, and I think those lessons will help them as they step into major leadership roles this year. A lot is expected of the captains at Michigan State, and I think both Gabe and Malik are ready accept that responsibility.”

Hall and Brown averaged roughly 12 points per game, combined, last year.

Now that they’re captains, they’ll be expected to produce more and anchor the front court (and the team), along with Mady Sissoko — a 6-9, 235-pound sophomore who could evolve into an excellent rebounder. He’s good on both sides, too — offensive and defensive glass. Michigan State has depth in its front court, which also has 6-9, 245-pound junior F Julius Marble II.

Joey Hauser returns as the Spartans’ top scorer, averaging 9.7 points per game in 2020-21, and gives the Spartans options at the 4 position. Hauser can shoot and play with his back to the basket.

Now a legit 7-footer, Marcus Bingham Jr. has grown a little since last season and tips the scales at 230 pounds. Now that he’s bulkier, he’ll be more effective with the physical game in the paint. He also has a 7-4 wing span, longest on the team, and is expected to be the Spartans’ block specialist — maybe something like Deyonta Davis was a few years back.

Forecast

It’s impossible to accurately pin down the Spartans. They’ve entered seasons as the preseason No. 1, or 2 or 3 or 4, and they’ve lost in the first or second round. Teams similar to the 2014-15 team, which was on the bubble in February of 2015, reach the Final Four. It won’t be until mid-January when Michigan State begins to show its true colors. Izzo has a balance of youth and experience, but he’s coming off his worst season as head coach in East Lansing.

MSU should be in the top half of the Big Ten this year, rather than lingering in the bottom half like last season. That’s about as specific of a prediction that can be offered at this time.

Rebound year, that’s certain. Getting into March Madness, as usual, is the goal — and then Izzo will take it from there.