Taking it two games at a time
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Two at a time.
That’s how Tom Izzo rolls in March.
The Michigan State coach used to be content with simply getting in the NCAA tournament and pouring all of his passion-fueled preparation into trying to win the next game.
Izzo acknowledged Monday he approaches this time of year differently than he did early in his career, telling himself and his assistants to get ready for two games at a time.
“I make sure my team worries about the one team and I worry about the whole weekend, at least my staff does,” he said. “I think as you got better in the tournament, you realize winning the game, getting in, is not where you have to parade anymore.”
The strategy has worked well.
Izzo has won 37 NCAA tournament games, a total that trails just four active coaches, including a national championship in 2000 during his second of six appearances in the Final Four. He helped the Spartans earn a 16th straight invitation to college basketball’s showcase, the nation’s third-longest active streak and best ever by a Big Ten coach.
While Izzo is honest enough to say he looks beyond the opening game, he tries to focus his players on only their next opponent. And for third-seeded Michigan State (25-8), that’s 14th-seeded Valparaiso (26-7) on Thursday.
“Our practice sessions, it’s going to be 98 percent on Valparaiso,” he said.
Michigan State started its run to the 2000 title by routing Valparaiso and later advanced to the Final Four with comeback wins against Syracuse and Iowa in Auburn Hills, where its game will be against the Crusaders before a potential matchup with Memphis on Saturday.
“The Palace has been good to us,” said Izzo, who is 10-1 in the home of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.
And he has been great for the Spartans. Izzo was promoted to head coach in 1995 after serving as a Jud Heathcote assistant and opened his career in charge of the previously solid program with two trips to the NIT.
Since then, just Kansas (24) with multiple coaches and Duke (18) led by Mike Krzyzewski have longer active streaks of playing in the NCAA tournament. In Big Ten history, only Indiana (18) has earned as many consecutive bids with a run that began in 1986 and was extended through 2003 when Bob Knight no longer coached the Hoosiers. Knight’s streak stretched for 15 straight seasons.
Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Louisville’s Rick Pitino are the active coaches with more NCAA tournament wins than Izzo. Five active coaches – Krzyzewski, Williams, SMU’s Larry Brown, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Butler’s Brad Stevens – can top Izzo’s .72549 winning percentage when teams are chasing a national title.
Michigan State is the only program that has been in the Final Four in six of the previous 14 seasons and three years ago, it joined UCLA, North Carolina and Duke as the only schools to reach the national semifinals at least six times in any 12-season stretch.
“It’s his favorite month,” senior center Derrick Nix said. “He’s known for getting the job done in March.”
Each player Izzo has recruited who stayed for four seasons experienced at least one Final Four and all of them have gotten to know former Spartans legend Magic Johnson, who visits with the team during most seasons, summers and when it advances deep in the NCAA tournament.
“He’s got a great program going because of the family environment,” Johnson said in February. “He’s always going to be there for you, to give you advice or just say, ‘Hey, happy birthday.’ Him and I talk all the time. I’m just happy he’s allowed me to be a part of this special program. He’s going to be with you for life, not just four years while you’re here.”
NBA teams, most recently the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, and other colleges have tried to lure Izzo away from the place he’s been since 1983. Izzo, who makes about $3.5 million a year, has chosen to stay each time he’s had a chance to leave and for that, his boss is thankful.
“Any president in America would be happy to have Tom Izzo as basketball coach,” Michigan State President Lou Anna K. Simon said earlier this season in an interview. “What I really appreciate about Tom is that really is an educator and is concerned about the direction of and the life skills of his young men, not simply how they play. He does wear his emotions on his sleeve, but you always know where you stand.”
The Spartans finished the regular season tied with Ohio State for second place in the Big Ten and won at least 25 games, including over Kansas, for the ninth time under Izzo. They’re ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll, slightly surpassing modest expectations after being 14th in the preseason poll.
If the Spartans advance to the regional semifinals and lose in a potential matchup with the second-seeded Blue Devils, the season will be remembered as relatively successful by some.
Not to Izzo, who said he would be “disappointed” if his team didn’t make a good run in the NCAA tournament.
“If we win this weekend, then I think we have just as good a chance as anybody,” Izzo said. “Even though the competition gets tougher, we’ve been through it, we’ve been there, we know what we’re doing as a staff.”