DETROIT — March Madness, Tom Izzo and Michigan State are synonymous. It’s been 22 seasons since the three weren’t combined, and it’s been that long since the Spartans went three years without playing in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Whether or not the latter streak comes to an end this year — and that can happen following a first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State in 2016 and second-round exit against Kansas last year — Izzo’s coaching legacy at Michigan State and within the world of basketball is secure.
“I think as usual he hasn’t done a good job, he’s done an exceptional job,” said Westwood One radio analyst P.J. Carlesimo. “It’s one of his best jobs, but I just expect that of Izz. He’s going to do that every year. He’s a fabulous coach, a great person. I know how difficult it’s been but I think he’s done extremely well.”
It has been a difficult season for the coach, the program and the entire university community because of the Larry Nassar case as well as allegations that the school and its athletic department have been negligent in pursuing allegations of sexual assault and violence against women.
There was little talk about those off-court situations Thursday as Michigan State, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional, prepared for its first-round game against No. 14 Bucknell at Little Caesars Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. Friday night with the winner advancing to the second round on Sunday against either No. 6 TCU or No. 11 Syracuse. The Spartans practiced for 40 minutes Friday in front of several hundred green-clad fans, with shouts of “Go Green… Go White” reverberating during the session.
Michigan State (29-4) won the Big Ten regular-season championship (its eighth under Izzo) and had a 13-game winning streak before falling to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on March 3. That time off has given the team and its Hall of Fame coach — oh, yeah, remember he’s in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame — time to take a deep breath and focus on their goal of winning the program’s third national championship. The last one came in 2000, which is also the last time a Big Ten team won the title.
This is a team that came in with high expectations. It was ranked No. 2 in the country in the preseason AP Top 25, has never been ranked lower than No. 9, and has been ranked outside the top 5 for just two weeks all season. It is No. 5 currently, despite the NCAA selection committee giving it a No. 3 seed.
“When there’s noise and, I mean, no matter what it’s from, every player kind of acts differently and accepts it or doesn’t accept it,” Izzo said. “Probably of all the things that I’ve had to coach this year, that’s the hardest is trying to figure out: is it because of this, is it because of this or is it because of this?
“There were times I was maybe a little harder on them. But probably more often than not I wasn’t. And I’m not sure that’s good either. But that’s the balancing act that you had to do. I mean, that was the situation we were presented, and I think, as I look back on it, whenever it’s all over, I’m going to appreciate how well our guys handled it but I will also say how probably difficult it was for them.”
History says see you in Omaha
Michigan State missed the tournament in Izzo’s first two seasons after he took over for Jud Heathcote in 1995-96. The Spartans went to the regional semifinals in 1998 and then to the first of Izzo’s seven Final Fours in 1999. Michigan State has played in the Sweet 16 13 times in 20 previous NCAA appearances during the Izzo era. This is just the second time it has gone as many as two years without a trip to the regional semifinals since the streak of 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths began in 1998.
“It shocks just from the point of how great and successful he’s been. I think that says a lot. It’s kind of a cool stat,” said Matt Steigenga, radio analyst on the Spartan Sports Network. “I think it’s hard to quantify [the job Izzo has done] because of the expectations. If you lose, people are going to ask ‘what went wrong?’ I think given what he had and where they ended up, he did what he was supposed to do. He was good to very good. Do you give him an excellent? I don’t know. Maybe.”
Carlesimo agreed. Carlesimo coached for 18 seasons in college, including leading Seton Hall to six NCAA Tournaments and a runner-up finish in 1989, before a 16-year NBA coaching career that included 10 seasons as a head coach.
“I always think it’s tougher to coach [with high expectations] but we’d all rather have that,” Carlesimo said. “As long as they’re legit expectations, not if you’re overrated. I’d rather have really good players and be expected to be really good, and have to live up to that, than have to try to overcome a talent gap.”
Michigan State is favored to be playing next weekend in Omaha, Neb. History says Izzo and the Spartans will be there.
If they’re not, it’ll be a disappointment. There will be questions but it won’t change Izzo’s coaching legacy.