For the fifth time in six years, and eleventh in his Hall of Fame career, Tom Izzo is taking the Spartans to the Sweet 16. Many in Spartan Nation already have their best dancing shoes shined up for the excitement that is the second weekend of the Big Dance. MSU will of course travel to Indianapolis to take on Duke on Friday night, and if victorious, the winner of the Louisville-Oregon game on Sunday. As predicted when the brackets were announced, the Midwest Region has more heavyweight punching power than any of the other corners of the bracket. The Regional Final on Sunday could even feature a match up that will best one of next week’s Final Four contests.
MSU looked dominant against Valparaiso to open the Dance over lunch on Thursday, and then effective though a bit herky-jerky in a 70-48 win over Memphis. While the Memphis game was arguably a little closer than the final score indicated, it was still more than a 7-possession wax job.
It didn’t take long for Tom Izzo to get into his March groove, stomping his feet and howling out instruction to his team like Bruce Springsteen powering the E Street Band through another rendition of Badlands. The man loves March, lives for March, and has now become a national staple of March Madness. Friday night he’ll once again touch clip boards with another top pillar of March, Mike Krzyzewski.
“Nobody’s Duke, because Duke is Duke,” Izzo said earlier this week about successes come Tournament time. “We are one of the closest things to it as far as consistency, and that should make for an incredible game.” Whereas the Spartans proved to be the more talented, effectively athletic, and far more polished Basketball team on Saturday afternoon, Duke is no Memphis.
“They do not turn the ball over much…they do not make many mistakes,” Izzo summed up. The Blue Devils do not beat themselves very often, and once again Coach K is getting about as much from his team as he can. That’s a hallmark of being a great Coach, and maybe the area Coach K has improved the most upon after his mid-career crisis that saw him step away from Coaching (1994-95) for a little while.
So much has been said and written about the “Modern Day Wooden,” but there’s still so much to be learned from the principles that Coach K has refined and developed during his career. He’s better now at taking the yearly pieces he has to work with and making them the best they can be. He doesn’t try to fit personnel into his preferred scheme as much as he’s able to identify what his players do best, and then put them in the best position and overall scheme to let them flourish. That’s not as common a coaching trait as you might initially think.
“(They’re) shooting over 40% from the 3 as a team and they’ve got five guys that shoot over 38 %,” Izzo added. “That’s impressive.” Yet, the Spartans match up pretty well with Duke this time around, and might even be favored by the majority of “experts” come game time Friday night.
Between now and then, the biggest thing MSU can do to improve their odds is get healthy. MSU is deep and talented, but probably cannot get to Atlanta without a healthy Keith Appling. The Spartans weren’t really tested last weekend, but should expect to need their “Closer” as the competition tightens up.
“You can tell he wasn’t the same when you went back and watched film, he wasn’t as aggressive defensively,” Izzo said about his Point Guard who gritted it out all weekend with a bum knee, and then banged up his shoulder against Memphis. As the level of play jumps up, including the prospect of the tenacious Louisville Defense ahead, the MSU turnover level must revert back to an acceptable level. MSU turned the ball over too much in the latter part of the 1st Half against Memphis, and thus kept the Tigers around longer than they should have. It’s hard to see the Spartans controlling their turnover level without a healthy Keith Appling to go along with Travis Trice as their primary ball handlers.
But when you think about Spartan Basketball, you start by assessing the first two cinder blocks of Tom Izzo’s program foundation: Defense and Rebounding. Defensively, the Spartans held their first weekend opponents to 32% shooting, which Izzo called “maybe as good as we’ve had in a 2 game series in a long, long time,” and on the boards they exploded against Memphis in the 2nd Half to go plus 23 for the weekend. They’ll need a similar effort in both areas this weekend in order to punch their ticket back to Atlanta.
Tom Izzo prepares for the Big Dance the entire year, looking at the Tournament as the exam, not just the “final,” for the season’s grade. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win each game or the Big Ten Title, but it does mean that a central focus of every piece of work put into a season is building towards and aimed at making a deep run in the Tournament. If MSU loses a close game or two in the non-conference, it’s somewhat par for the course, and is often secondary to the development of the team for Tournament play.
That’s not the norm in major College Basketball. Some programs can’t do that, some chose not to, and some just don’t get it. Duke does, making their thirteenth Sweet 16 appearance in the last sixteen years. And for the younger ones out there, Duke wasn’t exactly an established super power before Coach K got there. Their success was far from automatic, making Coach K’s record even more impressive.
Right after outlasting Creighton late Sunday night, Krzyzewski told an on-court reporter that Friday night would be everything a big time College Basketball game should be. The Coach of the 90s versus the Coach of the 00s in a Regional Semi-Final hosted by as big a basketball town as the United States can provide. That sounds like something you’d take an entire season to prepare for. That is March Madness.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind
- The NCAA Tournament has taken a huge step up by making each game available for anyone with cable TV to see. It was a joke in the past when the national broadcasts didn’t begin until Regional Finals.
- To no great surprise, the Big Ten is the best Conference in College Basketball this year. The way I typically judge the best Conference is by looking at how many each put in the Sweet 16, the Final Four, the overall number of teams in the Tournament, and also considering the National Champion. Taking a look through that order usually leaves you with a pretty clear result.
- Is the NFL partially responsible for the recent high profile College Basketball firings? In the socialized competition of NFL, fans know their teams can turn it around fast, and at least half the league can legitimately claim a shot at being a Super Bowl contender before the opening kick. Perhaps those expectations are unfairly seeping into other sports. With heightened expectations often comes shortened levels of patience, and thus the surprising dismissals of Coaches like Tubby Smith and Ben Howland. The NFL ain’t College Basketball. I’m not sure the folks in the Twin Cities or Westwood completely understand that right now.