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 Thursday, October 12
Bilas Breakdown: Michigan State
 By Jay Bilas
Special to

Friday, Oct. 13
Even when Tom Izzo was coaching his Final Four teams, his long-term focus was on building a program that would last, and that would be a perennial contender. In that light, this may be the most important season in Michigan State basketball history.

After two great teams piled up 65 wins, two Big Ten titles, two Final Fours and a national championship in the last two years, Tom Izzo wants now to prove that he is at the helm of a great "program". Michigan State has been among the nation's elite contenders the past three years, and the Spartans are poised to again be a title contender in 2000-01.

Izzo, one of the brightest coaches to come onto the scene in the last 25 years, has proven himself to be among the best coaches in today's game. He is a solid teacher, recruiter and bench coach. But perhaps more importantly, he gets his players to believe in what he is doing.

I said it last year at this time, and I will say it again, Tom Izzo is the real thing.

Michigan State returns three starters, brings in some solid newcomers, and still has the same team quickness and speed, with the ability to defend, rebound and run. The major question for the Spartans will be about rebounding.

Can Michigan State carry forward the same attitude and desire that made them the premier rebounding team in the nation over the past two years?
Andre Hutson is ready to have a breakout season.

Hutson is a polished low-post scorer and can be a consistent threat inside. Hutson averaged 10.2 points a game last year running the court, using either hand, and really pursuing the ball on the glass (6.2 rpg) or on the floor. No longer does he go exclusively to his left, Hutson is an outstanding athlete that needs to be a leader on this team, and must look to score more.

Without A.J. Granger, Hutson will need to face up more. He shot 58 percent from the field last year and will need to hit his free-throw line jumper to be most effective this season.

The true anchor inside will be freshman Zach Randolph, who has an incredible feel and knack for scoring inside. Randolph played on the U.S. Under 20 National Team, and was outstanding on the offensive end. Because of his size, easygoing nature, and his ability to draw people to him, his teammates called him the "Babe."

Randolph is a lefty that has great hands and feet, always knows where he is around the basket, and although he is not a great leaper, has long arms and always seems to rise up above the pack for rebounds or shots. He has great quickness, and can get off of his feet in a hurry. Randolph will draw double teams because of his incredible ability to score in the paint and his unusual feel for the game, and that will open up opportunities for others.

Al Anagonye should benifit from Randolph's arrival. He's a bull inside who can finish and rebound, and should be ready to take the next step now that more of a contribution is needed from him. He shot 55 percent from the floor last year and despite a wide body he's pretty athletic and gets off his feet with power to score, rebound and block shots.

Adam Ballinger has good skills, and should see more time this season. Ballinger needed to get stronger, and should be able to provide quality minutes up front. Adam Wolfe, a 6-8 lefty, is a good mid-range shooter.

But the player who will keep Michigan State in the championship picture again in 2000-01 is sophomore Jason Richardson.

Richardson averaged just 5.1 points and 4.1 rebounds as a freshman, but remains an incredibly athletic leaper who can make the spectacular look routine. Of course, Richardson can run, jump and elevate to finish with spectacular dunks. But despite shooting 50 percent on the year, his shot was at times inconsistent.

However, he has refined his offensive game over the summer, in which he played for the U.S. Under 20 National Team and the USA Select Team. Richardson surprised observers with his shooting. Richardson has always been able to put the ball on the deck and get it to the rim, but he lived in the gym all summer and vastly improved his shot.

Jason Richardson
The high-flying Jason Richardson has added some touch to his outside shot, making him even more dangerous with the ball this season.

Richardson made tough plays in international competition, and showed incredible rebounding ability. Don't be surprised is Richardson is the Spartans' leading scorer this season. He is set to explode on the college basketball world.

Mateen Cleaves is a few miles away, getting paid this year to play for the Detroit Pistons. Gone with him are his physical play and penetrating ability. But most importantly, he also leaves a tremendous leadership void that will not be filled by just one person. The Spartans must fill that void collectively.

Cleaves' leadership reins should be picked up by senior Charlie Bell (11.5 ppg, 5 rpg, 80 percent FTs) who will need to bring greater enthusiasm into the season. Bell is the Spartans' top on-the-ball defender, which he demonstrated by shutting off the likes of Ed Cota and Jeff Boschee, and an outstanding guard rebounder. Bell should be able to go back to his off-guard position, now that he does not have to be concerned with running the team when Cleaves was injured.

Bell is very good from the wing to the baseline, has a solid handle, can pass and has scoring potential. Bell attacks the basket off the dribble and runs the court.

The point-guard duties will be handled by freshman Marcus Taylor, a fundamentally sound throwback guard that knows how to play. Taylor is not a jaw-dropping athlete, but is a very good shooter who will have the ball in his hands from the first day of practice.

Taylor is a good change-of-speed and direction player, with good court savvy and maturity beyond his years. He must assume vocal leadership with this team, and he must improve his defense. But, make no mistake, Taylor has the potential to be a great player under Izzo.

David Thomas played the point last season when Cleaves was out, and struggled a bit before giving way to Bell. All in all, Thomas performed well under difficult circumstances.

Thomas has size and length, and can take it off the dribble. He gets loose balls, and is a very good guard rebounder. Thomas is a versatile defender, and can back people in and look over defenses to make passes. With another year under his belt, Thomas should perform at a higher level.

Mike Chappell had a difficult season last year, largely due to the absence of Cleaves early. Chappell has a great shooting stroke and deep range, but did not get the ball delivered to him in his shooting alley without Cleaves penetrating and collapsing defenses.

Chappell lost confidence, and Izzo tried several ways to get him out of his shooting funk (38 percent FGs). Izzo wanted Chappell to be more than a shooter, and not to let his shooting determine what kind of game he was going to have. While it was a struggle, Chappell finished strong, and made several big plays against Florida in the title game.

Chappell enters this season with something to prove, and with his undeniable tools, should have a much better season.

Bottom Line
This is a group that feels it has something to prove, and wants to stake out its own success now that Cleaves and Morris Peterson are gone. The players currently wearing Spartan green know nothing other that winning Big Ten titles, and this year should be no exception.