Frustration wanes amid another March run for Izzo, Spartans
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) It's times like this when all the frustration seems worth it to Tom Izzo. The ups and downs of a long season having finally given way to another exhilarating run in the NCAA Tournament.
"I wouldn't trade anybody as far as the way these guys have handled things this year, the class in the way they've dealt with things," Izzo said. "What they are as students, what they are as people. I'm cool with it all."
On Friday night against Oklahoma, Michigan State will play in the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in eight years, a span of success that probably did more to enhance Izzo's reputation than even the national title he won 15 seasons ago. This year's March surge comes after a regular season in which the Spartans missed free throws, lost games in overtime and generally tested their 60-year-old coach's patience. But that's practically become a routine at Michigan State, where Izzo and his players seem to relish winning the hard way.
Top recruits go elsewhere and top seeds are handed out to other teams. Izzo and the Spartans never relent.
"You never quit learning in this job," Izzo said Thursday in Syracuse, New York, the site of his next game. "I've learned a lot about our team this year. I'm really proud of what they've accomplished so far. We'll see what happens from here."
The seventh-seeded Spartans reached the regional semifinals after upsetting second-seeded Virginia last weekend, and that victory led to another outpouring of praise for Michigan State's fiery coach. Izzo has only that one national title from 2000, but he's nonetheless become a gold standard for postseason success, having made six trips to the Final Four. This is his 13th appearance in the Sweet 16.
Izzo went to three straight Final Fours from 1999-2001, each time as a No. 1 seed, but Michigan State has been a top seed only once since then. The Spartans' recruiting has been questioned lately. Izzo has said he'd be fine with coaching "one-and-done" stars who stay in college for only a season before moving on to the NBA, but he hasn't really been able to land anyone of that stature, most notably missing on Jabari Parker, who chose Duke over the Spartans before last season.
No matter. The Spartans made the Final Four in 2005 and 2010 while seeded fifth in their region, and they made the regional finals as a No. 7 seed in 2003. Michigan State made the regional finals last year as well, and they can repeat that feat with a win over third-seeded Oklahoma.
"I don't know if it's a validation. It's just, you do what you do. There's a lot of different ways to win. I think a lot of coaches have done it different ways," Izzo said. "One of the biggest ways is you'd better adjust to the talent you have."
This year's team is led by two seniors in Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, along with junior Denzel Valentine. The Spartans have not had a top-10 pick in the NBA draft since Jason Richardson in 2001 but pro potential isn't everything.
"It's not about the names on the back of the jerseys, it's what five guys can do collectively, together," Trice said. "I think we're one of the best schools in the country when it comes to that, of taking, usually not the most highly recruited, not the most talented, maybe not the strongest and the fastest, but buying into our coach's game plan."
The win over Virginia pushed Izzo's record to 20-4 in the second game of NCAA Tournament weekends, a testament to his ability to prepare his team when he doesn't have much time. The players deserve a lot of credit, too it's their adaptability under a significant time constraint that enables the Spartans to be so tough after those quick turnarounds.
"We trust in Coach," Dawson said. "A lot of guys complain about, 'Oh, we're watching too much film.' But you know Coach is going to always have us prepared. Coach around this time just has passion for it because he knows and he expects us to be great."
Would Izzo be able to connect as well with a team that relied primarily on NBA-bound freshmen? Other top coaches have been able to, but Izzo has never really had the chance. What he has had are teams that can reflect his blue-collar mentality.
These days, Izzo's basketball team resembles Mark Dantonio's football program at Michigan State, which has also defied recruiting rankings by winning big. The two coaches talk often, and Dantonio encouraged Izzo recently to "stay the course" through tough times and disappointing games.
"The course has been pretty good to me over the past 20 years," Izzo said. "And we've stayed the course."