The Michigan State men’s basketball team is having another special year. While there are several worthy contenders to win it all come March, nobody would be shocked if Tom Izzo and his teams are the ones holding the trophy at the end of the tournament. While Izzo might only have one championship to his name, he has proven to be one of the best coaches in the postseason.
Michigan State might have had some struggles throughout the season this year, but if Izzo’s past tells us anything, the best may still be yet to come in March.
Tom Izzo’s reign
Izzo took over the Spartans’ basketball team in 1995. As a young coach who was spearheading a rebuilding process, nobody expected Izzo to climb the ladder as quickly as he did.
Izzo started at Michigan State as an assistant under Jud Heathcote in the ’80s before taking over as head coach in 1995. Within two years, Michigan State had a pair of young top prospects in Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves to lead the Izzo era into something special.
In just his fifth season as a college basketball coach, Izzo led the Spartans to an NCAA Championship on the backs of Cleaves, Peterson, Charlie Bell, and a young Jason Richardson coming off the bench as a freshman. In a sport where even the best coaches on the planet can go an entire career without a championship, Izzo was showing his prowess while he was still wet behind the ears.
Although this was Izzo’s only championship to date, Michigan State has been a mainstay in March Madness since the team’s first trip under Izzo in 1998. While Izzo has both been upset and caused upsets, his Spartans teams have a reputation for fighting hard regardless of what their standings and regular-season success were.
How does Tom Izzo do it?
Tom Izzo expects a certain amount of hard work and sacrifice from his players to win on the basketball court, but he returns it by being there for them regardless of what happens. Izzo’s practices are legendary for how hard passes where he not only expects the players to hone their skills but their bodies. A Spartans practice will test the players’ mental toughness as much as its physical toughness.
This hard-fought, war-like devotion to the game of basketball, particularly when it comes to winning, is what has set Izzo apart from so many other coaches. He isn’t in the Bobby Knight mold of a coach who will tear down a character to try to bring them up, but it doesn’t mean that he is sitting there letting mistakes and half-hearted effort slide.
In a 2013 rundown of what makes Izzo so special, Tyler Donohue pointed to all of this, noting Izzo’s track record of overachieving more often than he underachieves. He also noted Izzo’s coaching tree, which has produced several big-name college coaches over the years.
Another aspect, as shown by Cleaves and Peterson early on, is Izzo’s strength as a recruiter. Current NBA players Draymond Green, Jaren Jackson Jr., Denzel Valentine, and Miles Bridges all have Izzo to thank for preparing them for the NBA.
Past NBA players like Richardson and Zach Randolph also got their work in under Izzo. Izzo’s career is filled with triumph and failure, and his track record shows just how much a strong coach can instill into a team.
On top of his championship, Izzo has been to 22-straight NCAA Tournaments, made it to the Final Four on eight different occasions, won the conference tournament six times, and secured multiple coaching accolades on the way.
Can Michigan State win it all this year?
Michigan State is not breaking any records in 2019-20, but if Izzo’s past shows anything, it might be exactly where Izzo and company want to be. Although something can be said about teams who dominate all season, it is the teams who figure out how to face some adversity and tough out even the direst situations who often come out on top in March.
Led by Cassius Winston with help down low from Xavier Tillman, the Michigan State Spartans will likely get into the tournament as a mid-to-low seed. Whoever draws them in the tournament, however, will have to remember the man behind it all who relishes his ability to turn coal into diamonds on a nearly annual basis. Win or lose, Izzo’s legacy is secure, with every new chapter only adding to his merits as one of the best.