EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is pretty fired up about his team's chances in 2012-13.
There is a lot Connecticut doesn't have this season.
The 14th-ranked Spartans play the Huskies, in their first game since the retirement of coach Jim Calhoun, at Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany, on Friday in the first game between Division I teams held in Europe.
Despite losing All-American forward Draymond Green, the Spartans are deep and talented after going 29-8 last season and earning a top seed in the NCAA tournament, where they fell 57-44 to Louisville in the West Regional semifinals.
"We have a chance to put together a pretty good team," Izzo said, sounding perhaps as optimistic as he has before a season in years.
The Huskies don't have a chance to play in the postseason after failing to meet NCAA academic standards. They don't have the five players who left the program early after the postseason ban was announced. And they don't have Hall of Famer Calhoun, who retired in September.
The Huskies, however, say the cupboard is not exactly bare. They still have a very strong backcourt. They have a new and energized head coach in Kevin Ollie. And they have a togetherness forged from the adversity of the offseason.
After a disappointing 20-14 season that ended with a 77-64 loss to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAAs, they are also in the unusual position of not having to meet anyone else's lofty expectations.
"Nobody thinks we're good enough," said sophomore guard Ryan Boatright, one of just five players with notable playing time returning from last year's team. "But we feel like we've got enough here to have a successful season and to open a lot of people's eyes this year, and to prove everybody wrong. I feel that's the chip we've got on our shoulders, to prove the world wrong."
Izzo has four of his top six scorers back from last season's team, which won Big Ten titles in the regular season and conference tournament and put the program in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the 10th time in 15 years.
And what really pleases Izzo is how hard his players are working and what he heard from former Spartans guard Tim Bograkos, a player in the program from 2000-05, after one of their early workouts.
"He was here when those practices were like wars and he's been here when they've been like belly bumping, prom dancing practices," Izzo said. "He said to me, 'Hey, coach, looks like old-time practices are back, huh?' I said, 'Hey, Tim, that's the best compliment you can give me.'"
Third-year guard Russell Byrd said the team can put together drills and scrimmages that will prep it well for what is expected to be a demanding season.
"It's crazy how competitive it is in practice," Byrd said. "Coach keeps saying it reminds him of the championship season."
Izzo - in his 18th year as head coach and 30th with the program - led the Spartans to the 2000 national championship and is coming off his 15th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Michigan State won its seventh Big Ten title under Izzo and third conference tournament championship last season.
Ollie, who doesn't turn 40 until December, is Calhoun's hand-picked successor. He became an assistant at UConn - where he played for Calhoun from 1991-95 - in 2010 after 13 years as an NBA journeyman. But, he has never been a head coach on any level.
That was the reason athletic director Warde Manual said he gave Ollie just a one-season contract, to see if he can do the job.
"We've all formed a bond with him," guard Shabazz Napier said. "We're all upset that he only got seven months. We felt he should have got more than that. But at the end of the day, sometimes I guess you have to prove yourself, and that's what is going to happen."
Ollie has quickly established himself and his energetic style, running practices that focus on conditioning and accountability. He joins his team in gym shorts, demonstrating what he wants from them and yelling "full-speed, full-speed."
He says the Huskies will have a West Coast-style offense with an East Coast mentality on defense.
"We try to play defense all the time; we try to make our free throws and we try to pressure the ball, and we've got to rebound," he said. "We do those four things right and we'll win our share, I believe."
This game will have special meaning for UConn's three German players. Junior Niels Giffey and freshman Leon Tolksdorf are from Berlin and junior Enosch Wolf hails from Goettingen.
These teams have split four all-time meetings, with unranked UConn beating No. 2 Michigan State 70-67 in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational on Nov. 23, 2010, in the last matchup.
The Associated Press News Service
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