Tom Izzo is many things and one that this Hall of Fame coach certainly can lay claim to is seasoned. He has been around a long time and he knows that as the Big Ten kicks of the Big Ten Tournament today this one could be the greatest ever. Not only for this conference, but in any conference.
Izzo addressed that fact. He said, “I said I thought the Big Ten Tournament would be better than some Final Fours. Matt (Larson, MSU SID) did a little research and I think as he said only three times in the last ten years where there Final Fours with four top ten teams in it. We’re going to have that in the Big Ten tournament now that Ohio State and us snuck in to the top ten. It going to maybe be one of the craziest tournaments I think they have had in the whole country. When you look at the fact that back in Chicago, it’s a good memory of that as we won it back in 99 and two thousand. Fond memories. When you look at the fact that we played I think fourteen now ranked teams, almost half of our teams we played against were ranked, and as I said a lot of them in the top ten. We are about as prepared for it as you can be.”
The Spartans will tip off sometime after 9 PM EST on Friday and they will face either Northwestern or Iowa. Two teams Izzo and the Spartans know well.
“In Northwestern we just played them. They’ve endured so many injuries but they played well at times. I think it’s partly the coach and partly the system.” Izzo went on to talk about an Iowa team that looks very different today than they did when MSU played them earlier.
“When you look at Iowa; a team that started out 0-3 after losses to us, Indiana and Michigan and went three in seven in the first half but have been 6-2 since. They have played awfully well in their last eight games and won as many as anyone else in the conference.”
No matter who the Spartans play first it won’t be easy. “I think we could be facing one of the hotter teams in the league and we could be facing a team we just played. Either way I guess we are ready to go.”
Common sense doesn’t always work, especially in the Big Ten this year, but no matter which team the Spartans play on Friday they will be desperate. Does playing a desperate team make them all that much different? Izzo said, “I think that is why most of time there are upset in these kind of tournaments because people are playing for their NCAA lives. I hope at the same time we are playing for our NCAA bid life. That is the way we are going to approach it. There is definitely when there is a sense of injury because that is un-paralleled because everyone is dying to get in the NCAA tournament. If it is handled right that can be a plus. It can also be undue pressure that makes you not play as well sometimes. I think for the most part when most people’s backs are against the wall they probably perform at their best.”
So what is the mindset of the Spartans this week? They certainly are already in the tournament so what is Izzo looking for? “I think for us right now I guess number one would be getting the championship we didn’t get. That would be number one. I think number two would be the confidence in playing well. You can argue that whoever does win this thing has got to feel like he has as good of chance as any to win the NCAA tournament just in ranked team alone. Unless there is a bunch of upsets early and somebody is not playing those kind of teams to win it. So I would say that more than anything really would be the two factors I would look at personally. It would be prestigious to win this tournament this year with the number of teams that are in it that are so good. That would be good. I don’t argue with you and I don’t even mind you asking because the conference tournaments when you are going through eighteen games and maybe twenty in the future you know they are difficult. There is no question about it. As long as it is the same nationwide I am cool with it. It’s when we get differences of sixteen or eighteen games or things like that I think it becomes a problem.”
Izzo has a long history with this tournament. What ones maybe had the best or worse impact on him? “I was gonna say, I think ’05 was probably the most motivating one. It bothered me, it bothered the players, it bothered the fans, it bothered everybody. I thought we really took that and tried to use it to our advantage. I had some seniors that had been through it, I’ve had some guys that I think were good enough players and hungry enough guys and so that really was the year. I can’t think of any of the, I guess the one year when we won 15 conference games in a row after we lost to Wisconsin, what was that, ’99? That year it helped us keep momentum and I thought that was important that year. But I’d say 2005 with the early loss was probably the most helpful the tournament was. I thought the year we lost to Wisconsin in the second round and had the 12 point lead and they beat us from heaven or something the way it all worked. I thought that, too, was more of a motivating one. It just depends on the team, how tough, how experienced your team is whether they can use it as a motivator or as a depressant. I thought that two we lost were motivators.”
Doing well in this tournament can mean playing on Sunday. That doesn’t help if the NCAA tournament sends you to play on a Thursday. Izzo reflected on the past. “I thought what hurt us was the Sunday night-Thursday out there and then them sitting there a little bit. But that would be the case whether we won or lost. We would have been a day earlier I guess it would have been a little easier, though we wouldn’t have got out there earlier. I don’t know if it hurt us that much. We didn’t play very well against them, but I think that’s the only way it hurts you if you’re playing Sunday night and then go from there, out to a West Coast game.”
Izzo is notorious for his preparation and planning, but how would you like to be a team facing MSU? They don’t have one clear star. Everyone has at one point led them and everyone not named Gary Harris has had their inconsistencies. So what should teams do with the Spartans?
Have any suggestions on a blueprint for beating your team Tom? “If they do, that’s a hell of a coach because I don’t have my own blueprint right now. You know, I don’t think we’re an easy prep either. We are from the standpoint that you don’t have to worry about zones and presses and all those things but you do have to worry about different plays and different things and all those different people beating you. You know, sometimes it’s easy if you know they have two great players that are going to score a lot of their points, you can gameplan to that. One day, Nix is getting 25, one day he’s getting five. There’s some inconsistency to that but it’s hard the other way to figure that out. We thought Northwestern would zone us a lot and they manned us almost 95 percent of the time. So yeah, when tournament time comes, preparation, that’s a lot of what with do with. Who you have the one day or if you look at it if you win the first game, I think we’re down to like 14 or 15 hours. I haven’t figured it out yet but as the 3 seed, it’s the quickest of turnarounds. It’s the late night game so that makes it even worse because you’re actually doing most of your prep not for a player the day of the game. The coaches will work all night but the players have a quick film session and go to bed and they’re really into it the day of the game. That’s all-the-more difficult. All those are the kinds of small things that happen in these kinds of tournaments and there’s different time frames for each one.”
Spartan fans know that Izzo’s greatest glory hasn’t always come at this tournament. They also know he is competitive and wants to win it badly. Especially in a year that winning it really matters based on how deep and prestigious it is.
So what is the Spartans Achilles heel this week? Izzo doesn’t even really know. “That is a tough question because I’d like to say, are we focused in but we’ve been pretty focused in. I guess what has hurt us the most is turnovers which sometimes that means you’re not focusing as well. So if I said turnovers it might be caused by a lack of attention to detail. I think we’ve done some little things that we haven’t executed down the stretch at times. So I think, believe it or not it will be the little things. It’ll be the missed free throws, it’ll be the made free throws, it’ll be my version of all of the special teams. Did we cut out at the line. The big things, I think everybody gonna do pretty well. The little things might be the things that change this tournament. And yet, if you ask a specific to me, it would have to be the turnovers because when we’ve turned it over, we’ve lost and when we haven’t we’ve won, and that sounds simplistic but I think it’s really true with us. And the truth is, it’s almost like the 15 and over, where you go one way and the 15 and under, we’ve survived some 14 or 15s but when we get over that, I think we’ve survived those times.”
He continued, “I thought we were awful early, awful, not even bad awful. And then I thought we went to great and now we’re decent. But I think one of the reasons we went to great is we weren’t running as much, Keith (Appling) was on top of his game and then, he struggled a little bit and then we tried to run more and now we’re running and he’s on his game and I think that would help us a lot.”
The Big Ten is changing. Thus so is the Big Ten Tournament. With the addition of Rutgers and Maryland and certainly two more on the way is this tournament on the verge of becoming more important than the Big Ten regular season? A phenomena we are used to seeing in the ACC, Big East and SEC, but not really the Big Ten.
Izzo was quick to voice an opinion on that. “Wow, that’s a good question because if the conference keeps getting better. I guess the Big East would be the closest thing that I remember. The ACC, I don’t remember it when it was really good top to bottom, if it’d even been that way. It’s been so long it’s been Carolina, Duke or Maryland. Wake Forest had its years. But the Big East had some of those years where that tournament might have been as big … I think that’s why it got to … this could be, could be the start of changing the philosophy of the Big Ten. You know, it’s always been a regular season conference champ. The Bob and Gene’s and Jud’s and Clem’s and those guys that made the regular season for 20 years, 30 years, such a grind, such an important part. If this tournament when the protocol when you’ve got a bunch of ranked teams left the last two days, would it start taking on what the Big East had in New York City? Maybe we would start looking at this thing a little different. Part of me says that would be good for TV, that would be good for the fans, but I don’t see how you can judge something in three days what you can judge in two and a half months. I’ll never figure that out. It’s a lot more grinding. A little more pressure on this, but a lot more grinding to be able to do something over a two and a half month period of time.”
Izzo reflects on his love for Bob Knight to add more focus on what is happening with the league. “Bobby Knight was, when I got into this league, he was adamant about that. And I still agree with him, I really do. I still think that even though this is probably going to be historic, it will be for the Big Ten, as far as the number of ranked teams and top teams. I sit there and look at the brackets and I can’t even figure out who’s going to be playing on the second day, much less the last two days. So, it’s going to be great in that respect, but it’s also going to be a long time before I’m ready to say … you become a man when you do it over two and a half (months). But we are in a quick fix generation. I’m like Fred. He’s got to get his slap in on the Big Ten Tournament. We are into being satisfied today because we can tweet it. Maybe that’s going to do the changing? I don’t know.”
Buckle up Spartan Nation. MSU could lose on Friday or win it all on Sunday. The cool part is NOBODY knows.