- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.
What is back is enough to make Michigan State fans salivate: a bounty of talent and experience at virtually every position. In a loaded Big Ten, the Spartans, too, are loaded.
But it's what's missing that is enough to make Tom Izzo panic. That would be Draymond Green, the relentless leader who steered the Spartans to the Sweet 16 last season.
With every obvious and tangible piece of the puzzle in place for another strong run, it is replacing the intangibles that is paramount on Izzo’s mind as the season draws near.
So who replaces Green?
Tom Izzo: That’s kind of an unanswerable question. He was so important for us in ways that weren’t visible. There are guys who are great point guards, great rebounders, great scorers. I’m not sure Day-Day was great at any of those, but he was excellent at all of the intangibles -- leading a team, being able to run a team through him. He was a safety net for me as a coach.
It was little things. We were talking the other day about whether we wanted the guys to lift on Thursday or Friday. I told my assistant to ask the guys what they wanted and find out. He came back and said, ‘Well, I can’t get a hold of all the guys.’ We used to be able to call Day-Day and he’d handle it.
I think there are some guys I can count on, but, honestly, it’s going to have to be by committee.
To that end, can you count on Derrick Nix after his offseason arrest for DUI?
Izzo: The thing about Derrick, he has done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s been terrific academically. He needs 22 hours to graduate, so he’ll do that easy in four years. He lost the weight when we asked him to and even more now.
He’s a good kid, but do they ever learn?
I hope so.
What’s the status of Branden Dawson [who tore his ACL in March]?
Izzo: He’s practicing at about 95 percent right now, but he hasn’t been involved in full contact yet. We expect him to be ready by the start of the season, but just how ready he will be is the question.
You know people will look at him and say, ‘Why isn’t he the same player he was before if he’s OK to play?’ Well the thing of it is it’s the conditioning. He’s been working his butt off to get back, but when you’re going through rehab like he is, you don’t get to run and jump and play and shoot for basically six months. Riding a bike doesn’t do it.
So the impossible thing to answer is the timetable. It was really lousy timing in a lot of ways. Usually players make the most progress in the summer between their freshmen and sophomore seasons. He didn’t have that time. He’ll be back for us, but it’s still going to take time to get back to where he was.
What kind of lineups can you use with this team?
Izzo: Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix both improved a lot over the summer. With those guys and Branden Dawson, we could have a pretty big Big Ten lineup there, or we could go smaller with [Gary] Harris, Dawson, Keith Appling and Russell Byrd. He’s a great shooter -- didn’t miss the other day in practice -- which is something we didn’t have at all last year.
I don’t have the luxury of someone like Day-Day, but we have choices. We have more versatility, and those are the kinds of teams I’ve had success with in the past.
You start the season in Germany against Connecticut, then four days later you play Kansas in Georgia. How will that help your team?
Izzo: I do like to be insane with my schedule, but this might be even insane for me. I hope the schedule will add toughness for our team and maybe some camaraderie, too. We don’t take those trips like other teams do, so this is a chance for them to fly over there together, come back and see what we’re made of.
I was talking to our football coach the other day. We opened up with Boise State. They’re good, so there was decent hype. Michigan opened with Alabama and lost big, but that’s all anyone is talking about. I think that will be good for Michigan in the long run. We opened last year on the aircraft carrier and for about two weeks, that’s all anyone is talking about. You have to take a few risks like that once in a while, I think.
How good can freshman Gary Harris be?
Izzo: The thing is he’s a really young freshman. He’s still just 17 years old, but he’s a phenomenal player, a great student, tough as nails. I think he makes us a much more athletic team this year. Because of him, I think we can really run and go more this season than we did last year.
He can also defend. We were a great defensive team last year, so if we can match that and use our athleticism to push it, we could be really good.