Spartans' Izzo: Top 5 is just a ranking

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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Expectations are high at Michigan State this season, but that's nothing new under coach Tom Izzo.

Entering his 19th season, Izzo has led the Spartans to a national championship, six appearances in the Final Four and seven Big Ten Championships.

Those goals are all on the checklist for this Michigan State team, one that lost to Duke last season in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament but loses only one starter and returns all of its key reserves.

Most around college basketball seem to agree this could be a big year for the Spartans, who are expected to be a top-five program when the season begins and are the favorites to win the Big Ten title.

"I'm excited about it," Izzo said. "I think in the last 15 years we've been a top-20 program, top-15 program a lot, top-10 enough, but there is a difference when you're top five. But within a couple years I've seen us be No. 1 and be out in the first round (of the NCAA Tournament) and be No. 1 and be to a Final Four. I hope the players are as smart as I am in that respect and know it's just a ranking, like everything else.

"I think we deserve to be a highly-ranked team, but I think there's a lot of other teams that do too. So hopefully that ranking, we can live up to those expectations."

To be clear, Michigan State has never been a No. 1 seed and been knocked out in the first round, but the Spartans will get a chance early in the season to see if they do, in fact, deserve this year's likely high ranking.

Michigan State plays Kentucky -- a team most expect to be ranked No. 1 -- in the Champions Classic on Nov. 12 in Chicago. That's just one of several non-conference tests, including matchups with North Carolina, Texas and Georgetown before beginning a demanding conference schedule.

But Izzo believes he has the horses to compete with senior big man Adreian Payne turning down the NBA to join senior guard Keith Appling, junior forward Branden Dawson and sophomore guard Gary Harris, who was the Big Ten's top freshman last season. Throw in guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine and a solid core exists.

"We have options to go big and options to go small," said Izzo, whose team started practice on Sept. 27. "All the work we did this summer looks like it has paid off, and yet we're still a month away from a game."

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