On the eve of the real first round of the NCAA dance, MSU head coach Tom Izzo won’t sleep well, but he should. Izzo is among the elite coaches when it comes to post season runs and earlier today he reflected on those many runs.
“You know, like you said, I’ve been able to coach a one seed that’s made it and I’ve been able to coach, I think, a five seed that’s made it. So there’s been different teams, different situations.”
Does this one feel the same? “This one doesn’t have the same — you know, it was, I think, Travis Walton’s year that, you know, he didn’t want to be the first group of guys in a four-year period that didn’t go to the Final Four. That was incentive. There was Chris Hill and all those guys had some of the similar incentives, and they had just come off, they were the first recruiting class off that great three Final Four runs in a row. So that was incentive.
This one I think is more — you know, we’re a younger team. We’re not as well led, and that’s not a negative; it’s just a fact of life.”
Does this one have the feel that they have a run in them? “I think us playing everybody has helped this team be able to sit there before a practice or in a meeting. The first meeting we had as we entered this NCAA tournament on Sunday, it was, you know, we have played everybody. We haven’t played at Duke and we haven’t played at Valparaiso, but we’ve played everybody at all different levels, you know, from Boises, you know, to the Kansases and Miamis, and then of course our conference games. I think there’s an understanding that they can compete with everybody, but I also think there’s an understanding that, you know, we haven’t won some of those games, and some of them have been through self-inflicted wounds. Some of the teams outplayed us and some of them we aided to that.”
Izzo uses those experiences to put his young team at ease. “And that’s what we tried to talk about and correct. So crapshoot, I would say no, but commonalties, I would say no also. This is just a different team, a different year. In some ways it’s been more fun. In some ways it’s been harder because I don’t have the same pulse, but they’ve proven their stock over 33 games that they can play with anybody, and now we got to make sure we’re beating the teams that we need to beat.”
Izzo went on to put his experience into context. “Well, that my experience can help a little but I don’t get to play. If I got to play, I’d feel a lot better about my experience, you know. But I do think I can be a calming factor or a motivating factor because I can look guys in the eye and tell them I know how to get here, I know what we need to do to win. Now, whether you want to listen, whether we want to execute it, whether, you know, you believe that, or whether the other team will cooperate, those are the coin flip areas. But I do think we have a system that is in place to advance through this tournament, but I make sure I let them know that isn’t getting us there. What’s getting us there is how they play, and what they do each and every minute of the day from, you know, taking their cell phones and girlfriends and put them on the back burner for three weeks or, you know, making sure they’re focused in on the walk-through.”
It doesn’t take long for the Spartans head man to wax poetic about his favorite time of year. “The beauty of this tournament is you really get a feel whether people, a group of maybe 30, 40 people, everybody that’s on our group, everybody that traveled with us, whether we can all stay focused on one task. And that’s not easy to do, and yet the team that moves on each week is probably the team that accomplished that best. And that goes from administratively to our managers, and that’s the way I’ve always believed it, done it, and I think it will be the same this year.”
With all of Izzo’s success things have changed. As Bryce Drew and his team were beaming just to be in the tournament, Izzo’s team sat emotionless in the locker room as their name was announced. Even the MSU schedule has the Final Four on it. Getting here and even winning a few games doesn’t move the emotion.
Izzo said of that, “Yeah, I am envious of that. I sit down in our locker room now and I watch the NCAA tournament and I remember those first couple years. You know, people were jumping. We were the team on TV. What do you think of being here and this and that? And now, you know, it’s just — it is part of the schedule. But I appreciate that, and I realize that that’s what building a program is, that you can sustain something. Sixteen straight years, you know, and, I mean, it hasn’t been done by many. So I keep telling our guys to appreciate it. Unfortunately, everybody else takes it for granted.”
So how does he handle that? “It’s finding a way to do both, because I expect at the end of the Big Ten season we’re within reason of trying to win a championship. I expect we’re somewhere where we still have a chance to mathematically win in the last week. And that’s happened, I want to say, like ten or twelve of the last 14 or 15 years. That’s a good thing.”
But Izzo remains the master of his own thinking. “But you got to keep reminding yourself, you know, once a while I go to the mirror and I slap myself a couple times and I say, you know, you better realize where you are and what you’re doing. And it gets harder, but it’s one of the reasons I do, without sounding corny, I do look up to the people in front of me. That’s why I study football and pro football and, you know, listen to Earvin when he comes back talk about guys. I’m in a locker room with Chuck Daly. I’ve read his books. You know, do learn how to handle success too, because it’s hard to, and you’ve got to appreciate it and realize that’s what you’re striving for and not take it for granted.”
Izzo said it best to me today as he left the locker room. “I am ready to make a run.” He them flashed his sheepish U.P. grin and walked away.
Izzo knows this team can make it to Atlanta. He also knows he can lose to Valpo. In the past he worried about what was ahead, today he said, “This is different, I am more worried about the first game.” I have never seen an MSU team with so much upside and so much to be concerned about.
It’s March and that makes this time of year magical. Are you ready for some…..Basketball?