It may be surprising to some to see a 7th seed make it all the way to the Final Four in the NCAA basketball tournament. But in the case of Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, it’s almost expected.
Izzo has now led his teams to 7 Final Four appearances in 20 years at MU, equalling the record of North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Louisville’s Rick Pitino. Only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has more Final Four appearances at 12. (Williams 7 semi final appearances include 4 when he coached at Kansas.) Izzo won it all in 2000 and has been runner up twice.
Michigan State will play the #1 seeded Duke Blue Devils in the first semi final next Saturday, featuring a coaching match up for the ages; Izzo vs. Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K has 4 national championships and 3 runners up and is generally recognized as having one of the the best big time program in the country.
Izzo’s program is also on most top 10 lists. You wouldn’t want to live on the difference between the two, but Izzo’s career has been marked by winning games he had no business competing in. To get to this year’s final four, the Spartans beat the East Region’s #2 seed Virginia, as well as the #3 seed Oklahoma. And no one is counting MU out against the Blue Devils.
The Spartans were inconsistent during the regular season, finishing 3rd in the Big Ten after losses to Nebraska and Illinois, as well as being defeated by mid-major Northern Iowa. But MU caught fire in the conference tournament, making it all the way to the final before losing to fellow Final Four participant Wisconsin in overtime.
That momentum carried over to the NCAA tourney — which isn’t unusual. Izzo has a knack of molding his team throughout the year so that they peak in March, saving their best basketball for the Big Dance:
Izzo, in his 20th season leading the Spartans, has reached the tournament 18 times and pushed his team to six Final Fours and the 2000 national championship. But perhaps nothing on Izzo’s résumé is as intimidating as his ability to win games he’s not supposed to, results of a well-known – and much-feared – tendency of Michigan State peaking as the regular season winds down.
“Whatever you saw in November, his players will be better when you see them in March,” said Gary Williams, the former Maryland coach who, along with Florida’s Billy Donovan, joined the fraternity in 2003, the seventh-seeded Spartans reaching that year’s Elite Eight. “A lot of teams, whatever they are when you get to January, that’s what you get. Izzo’s teams just keep improving.”
Izzo is 12-1 all-time in the tournament’s round of 32, which is where the seventh-seeded Spartans (24-11) and second-seeded Cavaliers (30-3) meet again, and no coach with at least 10 NCAA tournament appearances has a better record in the second round. Izzo’s recipe, according to friends and colleagues, is not complicated. He schedules challenging non-conference opponents to test his team, and practices grow shorter, an attempt to preserve his players’ health and conditioning, as the Big Ten conference schedule advances. He schedules frequent one-on-one meetings with players, particularly this time of year, to remind them of their responsibilities — the most important of which is muffling the voice of any player who seems ready for the college basketball grind to end.
Fife described his boss as a “math genius,” able to calculate large numbers and percentages in a flash, though Izzo struggles to spell and pronounce even the most basic words. The word “discipline” and the name “James,” for instance, are great sources of frustration.
It is the strange but effective Izzo way, and the banners hanging in the Breslin Center make his emphases, motivational tactics and quirks difficult to argue with. So do the disappointing memories that inhabit the minds of some of America’s best basketball coaches: Donovan, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and U-Va.’s Bennett among them.
Izzo’s accomplishments may have even been greater if, as one former coach and college basketball analyst suggests, he had been willing to cheat to get better talent.
“When a coach gets caught cheating, they ought to throw the book at him,” Fraschilla said. “Because there are a whole lot of other coaches out there, and I’ll give you one example: The reason Tom Izzo doesn’t have a great team right now is because he has not, quite frankly, he has lost some guys, at times, to schools that he wasn’t willing to break rules for. And coaches who don’t cheat will get fired if they don’t win, and that’s part of the problem I have with the NCAA. They ought to throw the book at all these guys that cheat.”
A clean program, a stellar post season record, a demonstrated ability to win games he shouldn’t, and players that will walk through walls for him. Does all this add up to Izzo being the best coach in America?
A subjective answer, of course. Two other coaches in the Final Four can make their own claims on that prize. Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari lead legendary programs and have achieved the highest success over many years.
But Izzo appears to accomplish as much or more with less. He can get the most out of what he has, which separates him from other great coaches. It’s not that his players are devoid of talent, but he can motivate them to have them playing at their very best when it counts the most.
That’s the definition of a good coach. And Tom Izzo fits it to a “T.”