By LARRY VAUGHT
Maybe Michigan State doesn’t go into this season with the hype that Duke did last year but ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas certainly is high on the Spartans.
“They’re very talented, they have experience. I think they’re going to be if not the best team, then among the best teams all year,” Bilas said Thursday during a national conference call.
Of course, Michigan State opens the season Tuesday in New York against Kentucky. Michigan State is ranked No. 1 going into the season while Kentucky is No. 2 — much like last year when No. 1 Duke smacked UK to open the season in the same Champions Classic.
Michigan State has preseason national player of the year Cassius Winston but senior guard Joshua Langford is out with a foot injury, senior wing Kyle Ahrens is questionable for Kentucky with an ankle injury and starting sophomore forward Thomas Kithier broke his nose this week but is expected to play Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
Don’t forget that the Spartans were 32-7 last year and took coach Tom Izzo to the Final Four for the eighth time — fifth most in college basketball history. Bilas says Izzo is on the “top level” with anyone who has ever coached college basketball.
“I’ve said this in the past — he’s not one of the best basketball coaches in the country, he’s one of best coaches in American sports,” Bilas saidn. “Tom’s got this humility to him to where he’ll say, ‘Well, we’re not on the level of Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina or all that.’ And every time he says that I go, ‘Yes, you are.’
“Who else has been to eight Final Fours in the last 20 years? Wo else has done the things that Michigan State has done? Michigan State wears green but they are a blue blood and he is on the top level with any coach that’s ever done this.
He’s not sitting in the back seat of any car with college coaches in it, not one. His program is the envy of the game, especially the way he does it. I don’t know a better guy and I know I don’t know a better coach. He’s extraordinary and I wouldn’t mind seeing him like, you know, take his take his right arm and put it over his left shoulder and pat himself on the back a little bit for what they’ve accomplished.”
Yet even with three starters back off last year’s Final Four team, Michigan State did lose a preseason scrimmage to Gonzaga and Bilas expects Kentucky to be a major challenge Tuesday — and probably in the NCAA Tournament as well.
“We’re going to see a rotating No. 1 this year,” Bilas said. “Kentucky is going to spend time at No. 1, because they have experience back and a very talented group of freshmen coming in.”