The Spartan Basketball Summer of 2008 led to the Great Success of 2009

Jonathan Schopp

The Spartans’ magical march to Mo Town was actually rooted in the summer of 2008. Without a championship level summer to establish the season’s foundation, there would have been no Final Four trip, no Big Ten title, and no unforgettable season. Summer is the season when college basketball players make their biggest improvements in physical strength and individual basketball skills. It’s also when much of a young man’s passion for the game is revealed through individual devotion and work ethic without a coach over his shoulder. 

Summer is when championship teams first forge the mold for the coming season’s results. Summer’s importance is somewhat familiar to members of the Spartan Nation since Head Coach Tom Izzo has stressed its importance for more than a decade now. But it is often overlooked by the casual basketball fan, and largely ignored by the general sports media. To this point, the impact of the summer of 2008 has been widely underestimated and ignored. 

The 2009 season started with injuries, a constant lineup juggling act, and a real identity crisis for the Spartan team. It ended with 31 victories, the third-most in school history, an outright Big Ten title by the widest margin (4 games) in 24 years, and a transcendent run in the NCAA tournament all the way to the National Championship game in Detroit. Those impressive accomplishments did not happen by accident. They were not solely the product of luck and timing. The real reasons for success were often hidden beneath the surface of headlines and Sports Center clips. Relying on anything less than the fine foundation from the outstanding summer of 2008, the Spartans would not have withstood the disarray and disruptions of the season to produce a championship caliber team.

The summer of 2008 was fundamentally different than recent off-seasons for the Spartan Basketball program. In past summers, Spartans such as Raymar Morgan and Drew Neitzel took advantage of opportunities to play on National “all-star” teams. Those experiences gave players more than just “basketball experience,” and provided opportunities for development outside of MSU basketball.

While the “all-star” adventures provided unique and valuable life experiences, they probably took away from the number of valuable hours that would have otherwise been invested in personal player development. Since there are only so many hours a day, joining a separate summer squad meant travel time, practice time, and film time away from MSU Basketball. It meant learning new offensive and defensive systems, building chemistry with new teammates, and applying an attention to playing games at a high competition level. Not to suggest all summer “all-star” experiences were a total negative, but in the past Spartans like Drew Neitzel have also returned from summer all-star trips at less than 100%. Neitzel’s injuries hurt his preparation for his Senior year, and likely affected his production and the team’s performance in the 2008 season. 

Yet, there’s more to a successful summer than just having players work on their conditioning and skills all day long. Tom Izzo recently told Spartan Nation he worries that players play too much basketball straight through the calendar year. “One of the problems this day and age is there’s so much basketball being played the kids never get a break, and that’s not good.” With gym rats like Delvon Roe always chomping at the bit, Spartan Basketball made an extra effort to give the rising Sophomore some needed downtime at the start of the summer of 2009. “We forced him (Roe) to take a month off, and that’s almost a fist fight with him because he wants to be in the gym,” Izzo said. “So we’re constantly trying to find some new ways, and all I keep saying you take a little bit of time off in the summer to play deeper into March.”

With the great success of last summer, Izzo and the “program of the decade” have continued to tweak their efforts this year to improve the summer formula. “We’ll have a thing where we’ll go a month with conditioning and weight lifting, we’ve asked them to play more one-on-one and do more drill work than actual games to try to save your body a little bit, then were going to take a ten day period, twice this summer, and say you know what, get away from it a little bit. But you know…I think that’ll be good both mentally and physically,” Izzo told Spartan Nation.

Coming off one of the best seasons in Spartan history, the entire Spartan Nation is looking forward to 2010 and its championship possibilities. Come next April, the Spartan Nation will celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the 2000 National Champion team.  And if the 2010 Spartans need any extra motivation for the coming season, the 2010 Final Four will return to Indianapolis, the site of that special 2000 triumph. “I think there’s enough guys hungry enough,” Izzo said when asked about his current team’s motivation, “I know I am. I like Indy…Indy’s been kinda kind to us.” How far the Spartans of 2010 ultimately go in the quest for the school’s third National Championship will be largely, though quietly, be determined by the summer of 2009.


2009 Season Summary:

Low Point:           Raymar Morgan getting pulled against Maryland in Orlando in front of a National Television holiday audience and then pouting on the bench to Izzo’s clear displeasure.

Turning Point:           Chris Allen’s second half wide open fast-break 3 at home versus Wisconsin to take the lead against the Spartans’ top basketball rival, while the ‘79 Magical Spartans looked on in reunion.

High Point:           Durrell Summers posterizing “dunk for Detroit” over UCONN’s Stanley Robinson in the National Semi-Final, &/or Kalin Lucas’ “Count it, and the foulllll!” dribble-drive to take the lead late against Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen.

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