Before last night’s upset by Ohio State over Indiana, even MSU head coach Tom Izzo had ceded his Spartans were playing for Big Ten tournament seeding and the NCAA dance. Not anymore. In a season that has brought more twists and turns than any soap opera to the nation’s best college basketball conference, MSU once again has a fighting shot.
Here is what Izzo said about the remaining regular season before the game. “This becomes a big week for us for a lot of reasons. Conference tournaments are starting across the country today. There’s just no greater time than March. We’re into the conference tournaments already. We’ve got a big game with another ranked team on Thursday. It’s a game that could get us into the Friday play of the conference tournament, which I think is important because there will be some ranked team that’ll be playing on Thursday. That’s our first bit of business that we want to take care of – make sure we get back on a winning track, number 1. And number 2, it helps us in the next goal we have, to win the Big Ten Tournament championship. So it makes for a bigger week.”
For now the Spartans are riding a three game losing streak, yet nationally they have remained in the top ten. That is an amazing stat. A stat that the usually unfazed Izzo had to step back and really take a look at, “Well I think whenever you lose, you lose to the number one, two and three ranked team in the country which we almost did, in a row, I guess one and four. Sure there is pressure, you never feel good about a win, a loss, the sad part is if you are a coach sometimes you lose and play better than when you won and everyone else feels better, but you don’t feel better.”
Izzo got into what he thought of the three game slide, “I did not like the way be played against Ohio State, I thought we played pretty good against Indiana and I did not like the way we played against Ohio State in the second half and I did not like the way we played against Michigan in the second half. I am sure both teams had something to do with it. Yeah you need a win. You need a win because you gotta start gaining some momentum and that is the only way you gain momentum in this job is to win. We got to win some games, but as I said, when you have been in it as long as I have we’ve been beaten in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and went to the Final Four when the roof was caving in. I am going to stick to the principles that got me to where I am at.”
He went on, “As disappointed as loses are, as I said at the press conference the other day, if we would have thrown in a couple of teams in there that we would have beaten or did beat on it just wasn’t in succession we wouldn’t be saying that.”
Izzo couldn’t get away from the fact that his team was still in the top ten. “I to was amazed that we stayed in the top ten because I do the same thing I criticize you guys for doing. I look at our team and I don’t realize what the other teams are going through. In my office we call it the Glenn Brown rule. My old college coach. You never know what’s happening to these other teams. Some teams I thought were better than us. Louisville, Syracuse teams like that. Lost three in a row, lost four out of seven. The way it works right now. Not only with parity, but in this conference it works that way because of a number of really really good team.”
One of Izzo’s greatest strengths is that he sweats the small stuff. He thinks about everything. Not only does he have to worry about Bo Ryan and the Badgers, he now has to think about spring break this week and how that impacts his team.
“What do I always tell you? If you win I did it right, if you lose I did it wrong. I don’t like having this much time off. I mean last week we had one game in eleven days. This time of year there is some good to it, you rest your guys, what do you do? We are going to practice right after this, but you don’t want your guys sitting around all day and all night either. Yet there are only so many things you can do and you don’t want them getting worn out. It works both ways. If you won it was great having the week off, if you lost it was bad. I am not that immature that I don’t figure out that I am stupid myself when I look at things.”
He added, “This week coming off of that week now we got another week where we have four days to go. You want to keep them going, but you don’t want to burn them out either. That is a fine line to find. I can’t say that I have been through many weeks like this in my career where we had seven day break and then this is the earliest we have ever had spring break. The Profs must want to get to Florida or something here earlier. Because it’s earlier than normal.”
Izzo may be pleasantly surprised that he is back in the Big Ten title hunt, but he never lost faith in this team. He has maintained for a long time that they can go a long way.
Izzo said, “Well when I say a long long way that can mean a lot of things. Making a good run in the tournament, what is a good run anymore? I don’t know. Used to be getting in is a good run, winning a game was a good run, first weekend was a good run, an elite eight was a good run, it’s moved up. I think this team is capable of playing with just about anybody in the country that I have seen so far. Other years I did not feel that way. Even years that we went to a Final Four I didn’t feel that way. I have just seen nobody out there, yeah we played Kansas, but that was so long ago. We played a similar Gonzaga team last year so at least I know something about them, although the center makes them better. When you look at some of these other teams, we played Louisville last year. I don’t think anyone is that much better; the problem is that I don’t think anyone is that much worse. “
He elaborated that, “I do look at this team we have shown up every game, not always to our liking, but we haven’t had one of those games where we just flat out haven’t shown up. The schedule and the number of big teams we have played that means we are getting up. Not always at the right level, but we are getting up to the level as much as anyone else is. I am trying to look at that and keep it in perspective. We’ve played I don’t know what the stats are, ten, eleven, twelve games against teams that we ranked in the top ten, so there isn’t a lot of teams we haven’t played. We’ve played against everybody within two minutes, win or lose we have been in every game so I think that proves where we can be.”
So what are the question marks with this year’s Spartans? “Whether we have the leadership – which I think starts rearing its ugly head right now – and the toughness, which I think rears its ugly head as competition gets tougher, as pressure gets bigger, those are the things you need. Those two things go together a little bit because when you have a leader like DayDay was, he brought the toughness with him too because he demanded of them.”
Izzo is well aware of what he has to do to get his team going and what buttons to push. “Coaches are demanding. We keep saying it’s not as good as when players are demanding, but we are assuming other teams have it. And I think less and less teams have some of those things right now and that’s what gives me hope and the way I figure that we still are as good as most teams in the country. I can’t say all fo them because we haven’t played against all of them. But the ones that we have, we can also get a look at the ones they’ve played and if you try to make comparisons, I say it’s never good, but it gives you some barometer.”
So is he feeling happy? “Put it this way: I’m not going to feel good on selection Sunday unless Northern Michigan pops up on the other side of our thing. But I’m not going to feel bad if they have us seeded and somebody says you’re a four seed or a five seed and we thought you would be a two, or you’re a two seed and we thought you would be a five, or you’re playing this team and oh boy you’re in this bracket against this team. I say let’s line it up, who cares? That’s the way I feel now and I’m going to feel the same way that night. Unfortunately it’s in a good way but it’s also in a bad way; I don’t think we’re head and shoulders above anybody.”
I have said and maintained for years that Tom Izzo’s seasons get judged in March. He has lost three in a row and is still in the Big Ten title hunt, number one seed in the Big Dance hunt and still in the top ten. Sounds about right. As some calendars recently turned to March, in the Spartan Nation it just says, “Izzo.” Enough said.