For most of the last decade, we've expected Michigan State to be one of the top teams in college basketball. Their path to this end is usually circuitous. It starts with optimism, but it can veer wildly through mediocre results in November and December. It is puncuated with talent and peppered with unusually harsh appraisals from coach Tom Izzo. And then, by the time February rolls around, the Spartans usually finish with some trademark Izzo wizardry -- a slow roasting process that more often than not results in conference titles and deep tournament runs.
The best two examples of this Izzoian path came in 2009 and 2010, when the Spartans were good but not great for much of the season, but finished with brilliant moves through the NCAA tournament on the way to two straight Final Four appearances. Last season, Michigan State never found that stride. There was no late-season congeal, no sudden eureka moments and no real indicators that the crucial corner had been turned. MSU won enough late in the schedule to narrowly avoid missing the tourney altogether, but a first-round loss to UCLA was a fittingly disappointing end for a team that struggled so mightily, and so inexplicably, for so much of the 2011 season.
It's no surprise, then, that MSU's 2012 expectations have been tempered. For the first time in years, the Spartans won't be ranked in many preseason top 25 polls. They're not the favorite to win the Big Ten. They are, for the time being, just another team.
Guess what? Izzo doesn't seem to mind. From the Lansing State Journal:
"You want to know the truth? I am so excited," Izzo said. "I am so looking forward to the year. More than ever because I feel like this is maybe one of those years like (2006-07) where expectations aren't quite as high. But there's still some really talented players on this team. It's gonna come down to putting them all together."
That has to feel a little bit like freedom.
OK, so Michigan State is never going to sneak up on anyone, but the 2012 bunch faces a much different dynamic from the Spartans teams of recent years. They won't be tasked with living up to national title hype and top-five preseason rankings. They don't have the spectre of two-straight Final Fours to contend with. Despite a large cast of returners -- including star forward Draymond Green -- this team will in many ways start from scratch.
Will expectations exist? Sure. But they won't be nearly as overwhelming. Whatever happens, happens, and if it's more than most expect, well, treat it like a bonus. "Zen-like" is not a description we normally attach to Izzo's teams, but in 2012, it might just fit.