As the Gonzaga program has evolved from a Cinderella story to a national powerhouse, one thing that hasn't changed is the willingness to play arguably the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country on an annual basis. At times, this approach to scheduling has been a huge benefit, as it has helped gain the program and certain individuals (Adam Morrison at the Maui Invitational) accolades and notoriety before disappearing from the radar during WCC play. However, on other occasions this type of scheduling has been a hindrance to the program, as certain teams weren't prepared to deal with the difficult travel and competition that tends to accompany the schedule.
This season we will get a very early indication for whether or not this team can handle such a loaded non-conference schedule. Before the Zags even head to Maui, they will first venture to East Lansing where they will visit Tom Izzo and the Michigan St. Spartans. After a 31 win season, and a spot in the national title game, the Spartans will be hungry to build on the exceptional finish to last season, and it seems that national championship hopes are abound for Izzo and his experienced group of guys.Last Season: Excellence and success have become the standard in East Lansing over the last decade, and last season was no exception. The beginning of the 2008/2009 season was marked by disappointment, as seen in blowout losses to Maryland in the Old Spice Classic and to North Carolina in the Big 10/ ACC challenge. Following the embarrassing performance against UNC, the Spartans were able to regroup and put their season back on track. A 75-59 victory over Bradley was the beginning of a 10 game winning streak that saw victories over NCAA Tournament teams like Texas, Minnesota, Ohio St, Kansas, and Illinois. Despite seeing some challenge from Purdue, Michigan St. was the dominant team in the Big 10 throughout conference play, and a 15-3 conference record was enough to win the Big 10 regular season title. After a loss to Ohio St. in the conference tournament, MSU entered the NCAA Tournament as a #2 seed. After dispatching Robert Morris, USC, and Kansas, Tom Izzo displayed the tremendous coaching that has become his signature, as a 64-52 victory over Louisville sent his team to the Final 4. With Detroit hosting the Final 4, it seemed that destiny was on the side of Sparty, and this only sense only seemed to grow after a dominate 82-73 victory over UConn. However, like every team before them, Michigan St. couldn't keep up with UNC in the national championship game, and their terrific season came to an end with the 89-72 loss.
New Faces: With so much experience returning this season, only two newcomers will be on the roster for the 2009/2010 season. In Derrick Nix, the Spartans have the big-bodied type of prospect that Gonzaga fans have longed for since the graduation of JP Batista. Nix measures in at 6'9, and although he is listed at 285 pounds, some reports suggest he could be weighing in at over 300. With that kind of size, Nix can be a menace in the post, since he is nearly unguardable once he gets position on the defender. However, in order to contribute this season, Nix must improve his conditioning and transform some of his weight into muscle. The other option for Izzo in this class is Garrick Sherman. Sherman is a highly skilled 7 footer, who seems to remind people of Paul Davis. Sherman has a vast array of post moves, and has great hands and good footwork. While he is now listed at 250 pounds, Sherman needs to continue to put on weight and strength to help endure the season long grind he will face.
Players to watch: Few teams can match the returning trip of Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan, and Delvon Roe. Towards the end of last season, Kalin Lucas was the best point guard in the country not named Ty Lawson. Lucas has exceptional speed and quickness at the point, and exhibits the ability to both score and setup his teammates. In order to emerge as the top point guard in the country, Lucas must improve his shooting from the perimeter, as that will make him nearly possible to contain for any defender. While Raymar Morgan entered his junior season with incredible expectations, injuries and inconsistency plagued him throughout the season. Morgan possesses tremendous athleticism and talent, but has yet to put everything together for an entire season. If Morgan can finally find the consistency that has been missing, he could be in contention for Big 10 POY honors. Even though both Lucas and Morgan are key to the ultimate success of this season, no player will be more important to how far this team will go then Delvon Roe. The highly touted Roe had a solid freshman year, although he was limited as part of his recovery from micro-fracture surgery. Roe is a rare combination of size and talent at the PF position, and if he is fully healed, there should be a tremendous jump in his game.
Concerns: My main concern with this game is the time of season that it is taking place. While Gonzaga will be bringing in a highly talented team, there will be little big game experience among some of the key contributors. On the other hand, Michigan St. returns the core of it's 31 win team, and should not have some of the issues in chemistry that the Zags might possess so early in the season. I absolutely think that Gonzaga has the talent to compete with this MSU team, but there is no way to predict how guys like Mangisto Arop and Elias Harris will handle playing in front of a packed house and the Izzone screaming at them. There is no way to simulate that type of atmosphere, and no one will know how this team will react until the team takes the court.
What we are watching for: I don't think many individual match ups will be better this season then the Demetri Goodson vs. Kalin Lucas battle. Lucas enters the season as a legitimate All-American candidate and has the trust of Tom Izzo at the point guard position. However, in Demetri Goodson, Gonzaga has one of the rare guys that can match the quickness that Lucas possesses on both ends of the court. This game will also serve as a tremendous indication of how much Meech has matured and developed since the end of the season, and whether or not he will be able to handle the starting point guard position against elite competition.