Injuries contributed to Michigan State not realizing its full potential last season, and the 2014-15 campaign has gotten off to a similar start for coach Tom Izzo's squad.
The 19th-ranked Spartans look to deal Loyola of Chicago a 20th straight road loss in their home opener Friday night.
Michigan State (2-1) held the No. 1 ranking early last season and wound up reaching the regional finals in the NCAA tournament, but it struggled at times while numerous key players missed multiple games with various injuries.
Izzo believed his team could have won the national championship. After Gary Harris and Adreian Payne moved on to the NBA and starting point guard Keith Appling graduated, he's now trying to succeed through depth, which has been diminished by early setbacks.
Michigan State has had to rely heavily on Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine for big minutes, but their efforts weren't enough to hold off No. 4 Duke in an 81-71 loss Tuesday in the Champions Classic.
Dawson (18 points), Trice (15) and Valentine (13) all reached double figures, but the Spartans committed 13 turnovers - five by Valentine - and shot 5 of 20 from 3-point range.
"It's hard to judge my team until I get my guards back," Izzo said. "You're frustrated when you give a game plan and then you get beat on the things that were Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in a game plan. But there were a lot of positives I'll take out of this. And we'll get better. We'll be a better team next week and we'll be a lot better team in two weeks and we'll be OK."
They'll especially need to improve defensively after Duke shot 54 percent, the best for a Michigan State opponent since Minnesota hit 56.6 percent in a loss Dec. 31, 2012.
"We're not a very good defensive team yet and I don't think we will be until we get some subs and until we get some pattern and substitutions," Izzo said.
The Spartans will look to bounce back against the Ramblers (2-0), who will be facing their first Division I opponent this season.
Christian Thomas and Milton Doyle scored 21 points apiece as Loyola forced 23 turnovers and shot 60.4 percent in Monday's 78-68 win over McKendree, but coach Porter Moser knows things won't come as easily against Michigan State.
"We've been more athletic than our opponents to this point. That won't be the case Friday," Moser said. "We have to play smart, but I don't want to change. I want to continue to move the ball up and down the floor and play aggressively. Our strength is playing a little faster and I'm excited about that."
The Ramblers haven't won on the road since beating Cleveland State on Jan. 23, 2013, and went 0-14 in true road games as they made the transition to the more-competitive Missouri Valley Conference last season.
Loyola did give host Michigan State a scare in the most recent meeting Dec. 8, 2012, taking a two-point lead into halftime before falling 73-61.