NCAA hoops: Michigan State’s Izzo joins great college coaches of with sixth Final Four trip
By Bernie Miklasz
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — If it’s late March you’ll probably find Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo standing on a podium on the middle of the court, pausing to accept
congratulations and another trophy before making his way to another Final Four.
The scene has become increasingly familiar through the years, the modern-day equivalent of Vince Lombardi’s emphatic postgame grin, a contented John Wooden leaning back in his chair in the final seconds, or Red Auerbach lighting a victory cigar on the bench.
If it’s late March, winning time in college basketball, it’s also closing time. In other words: Izzo time. He’s the most relentless finisher in the industry. You want to beat Izzo in the final week of March? Well, better bring a crowbar or maybe Dean Smith. You won’t out-tough Izzo, and you can’t outsmart him, either.
And the story played out again Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, when Michigan State had one more ounce of will, one more second of toughness, to outlast Tennessee, 70-69, in the Midwestern Regional final.
Izzo will be taking Michigan State to its sixth Final Four in the last 12 seasons, and no other coach in America is close to achieving that over the same stretch of recent history. Izzo, 35-11 in NCAA Tournament play, is only one of seven coaches to lead a team to six Final Fours.
“There’s nobody better than Tom Izzo,” said Magic Johnson, the proud Michigan State alum. “And he does his best in the NCAA Tournament.”
We shouldn’t overlook some others, of course. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is an icon with 11 Final Fours to his name. North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Florida’s Billy Donovan each have won two national championships since 2005. Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Rick Pitino (Louisville) and Ben Howland (UCLA) are right up there. John Calipari (Kentucky) wins, even if there’s usually a blemish on the record.
For an entire body of work, Izzo can’t top Coach K. That’s understandable in that Krzyzewski has been at this longer; he’s been the head coach at Duke since 1980, and Izzo didn’t take over Michigan State until 1995.
But if the standard test is recent consistency, Izzo is a clear No. 1. With a win over Baylor in Sunday’s South Regional final, Krzyzewski is returning to the Final Four. But this will be only the second Final Four for the Blue Devils over the last nine seasons.
And it’s the way that Izzo gets it done. Sure, he’s had a steady incoming flow of good recruits. But it’s nothing like the nonstop parade of high school All-Americans who matriculate to Duke or North Carolina.
Izzo’s kids are tougher than the rest. Taking them on is like wading into a pond filled with alligators. It’s like trying to crack steel with your bare hands. And no one — repeat, no one — gets more out of his roster than Izzo.
This year’s rising is especially impressive considering the injuries that would have destroyed weaker, less resilient teams. Michigan State doesn’t have point guard Kalin Lucas (Achilles tendon), its leading scorer and assist man. Forward Delvon Roe will probably require knee surgery after the season; he gutted out 20 minutes Sunday. Guard Chris Allen plays on with a sprained arch that limits his quickness and lateral movement; he gave the Spartans 29 hardy minutes.
To reach the Final Four, Izzo’s team had to repeatedly pull shards of glass out of its side and wipe off the blood. The Spartans also had to overcome some infighting, with stubborn players resistant to the demands of a headstrong coach. But the kids eventually figured it out. There are players, and then there are Izzo players. And yes, there is a difference.
“What’s unique about (this team) is it’s been a little bumpier,” Izzo said. “And then the injuries at the end. Three starters. We took 33, 34 minutes (per game) out (of our lineup).”
And fatigue was a factor Sunday. Seemingly in control, the Spartans went up by eight points with 11 minutes and 43 minutes remaining. But Tennessee’s depth, athletic ability and pressure gradually sapped MSU’s energy. But as we found out, it isn’t easy to take the Spartans’ hearts.
Izzo anticipated the storm. He expected an endurance test. He knew that this would lead to mistakes. And on Sunday morning he told them they would have to find a way to overcome the exhaustion and errors.
“I talked to them about separating themselves,” Izzo said. “We’ve gone through a lot of things this year. I just said these are life lessons. You’ve got 60 (more) years, and probably what you do today will help in some way for you to grow up and be stronger and learn what you gotta do.”
Near the end of the game it was Tennessee that hurt itself with a missed layup, a missed free throw and the failure to win a key battle for the ball after that miss from the foul line. The rebound went up for grabs once, twice, maybe three times. Remember, it was Izzo time, and these were Izzo’s guys. So wouldn’t you know it: The smallest and most tired player on the floor, Michigan State point guard Korie Lucious, came up with the loose ball and initiated a fast break that led to the winning point.
Tennessee didn’t get back on defense in time, which left Volunteers forward J.P. Prince with no choice but to foul Michigan State forward Raymar Morgan. With 1.8 seconds left and the score tied, Morgan made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Michigan State held on.
And isn’t it about time for the royals to make room for Izzo and Michigan State? When we talk about the most regal programs in college basketball history, the names usually cited are North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kansas and Kentucky. Indiana used to be there but has fallen out. So isn’t Michigan State elbowing its way into that select group?
The blue bloods will have to move over. Tom Izzo is there with them now. Except that he’s red-blooded all the way.