As the college basketball season was set to get underway in the fall, Michigan State found itself with a lot of hype and major expectations for the approaching season.
While the championship blueprint was not a season riddled with injuries, the Spartans have been without Keith Appling, Matt Costello, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Travis Trice for stretches.
Yet, at 22-6 as March arrives, the Spartans and Tom Izzo have all their key pieces back and the chance to show why they were ranked No. 2 preseason.
But has having the expected lineup back increasing pressure to show what the preseason buzz was about? Not so, said Trice.
"Our whole year, since the beginning of the season, it's been championships or Final Four or bust," Trice said. "That same pressure has been there the whole year, so we don't even want to look at it like that.
"For us, if we don't win a national championship, we didn't accomplish our goal this year."
After welcoming back Payne and Appling in the past few weeks, the final piece to the starting lineup being whole again is Dawson. The junior forward missed the past nine games with a broken right hand – and Michigan State went 4-5 without him – but will make his return Saturday at Breslin Center.
He said there is no added pressure now he is back, but it was nice to look like a team in practice again.
"It's something that have to show the world how good we are being that have all our guys healthy and everyone playing as a team," he said. "With everyone playing and without injuries, I would say we are a great team. At the beginning of the season, we were great.
"With us together as a team, we just have to go out there and show the world we are a great team."
Izzo said he has no intention of letting up on his team – "I haven't waivered an inch on that" – even if expectations moving forward from outside the program hinge upon how his team plays as it returns to health. But with the roster full for the first time since a Jan. 4 win at Indiana, getting on the same page again won't happen overnight.
"It's going to take time," Payne said. "Once we start getting everybody back together and our chemistry, we will start getting better."
Still, the pressure of expectations could come quickly as March unfolds.
"I don't think the pressure is all the way there," Costello said, "but I think as we move more into the NCAA tournament, the pressure will be there more as we are able to play with each other more."
The first crack at playing with the expected base seven-man rotation of Appling, Costello, Dawson, Harris, Payne, Trice and Denzel Valentine comes Saturday against Illinois – the first of three remaining Big Ten games.
And with the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament on the rapidly approaching horizon, time is limited, but Trice insisted the pressure isn't any different.
"The pressure hasn't changed," he said. "At the end of the day, it's just us that are here. As long as our team knows we have the same goal and is on the same page, that's all we are worried about."