TOM IZZO: History was not made by getting to our 19th straight NCAA Tournament. History was made as I was walking to my office today, just two minutes ago, and my secretary showed me a paper of a headline that even the media makes mistakes. History was made this weekend. Glad we're a 1 seed, and I hope it helps us through the tournament.
It is an honor to be going to our 19th straight. I don't know if you would ever -- certain things you don't dream about, and that probably would be one of them, the longest streak in the Big Ten, is something that has been earned by a lot of players and a lot of assistant coaches over the years, and I'm just proud to be a part of it.
I think this team has prepared well for the tournament. The Big Ten now with all the number of new coaches we've had over the last couple years and the change, and we have so many different styles, and then the games we just played, we might have played one of the biggest teams that you can could play against in the NCAA, and you played a very athletic one in Ohio State, and then maybe as talented a one 1 through 5 as any in Maryland.
We played against different styles. I think we're as prepared as we can be.
Last week we were all talking about what happens if Bryn doesn't shoot well, or I was bringing up to you that I don't want to be a team that's living by the three and dying by the three, and still our defense and rebounding has to be a staple, and I think it was a great example that he didn't shoot well, we didn't shoot necessarily really well, and we still found a way to beat quality teams.
I think that's the mark of a good team, whether it be by a pass or by a play or a blocked shot. We found a way to win some games with us not shooting as well.
As far as Bryn goes, it really doesn't worry me. I thought, well, we got some better shots, I thought the first shot of the game and the first shot of the second half there was nobody near him, and just the ball didn't go in. But when you watch him shoot every day, it is the least of my worries. If we can play that well and not shoot well and win games of that magnitude, I like our chances to win more games because I think he will shoot better and so will we.
But we did show we could win games in different ways. What do we got to focus on now? It's tightening up our offense the second half. We still got a little sloppy. I think we made a couple errant passes. I think we took a couple of bad shots, and I think we missed a couple of lay-ups. Those things are not going to be able to be tolerated if we're going to move on in this tournament. We're going to spend a lot of time this week on cleaning up our own actions. The execution of things was pretty good. I thought we ran better after a sluggish go in the first half of the -- second half of the Maryland game. I thought we pushed it better.
I thought Tum played better. That was encouraging. But this NCAA Tournament is arguably the greatest event in sports, and with that goes a lot of distractions, and everybody -- I get more calls today about our seeds. The hell with the seeds around the country. It's the games that matter, but that's the fault of all the NCAA Tournament, and there's just so much out there, there's got to be programming for everything.
My big worry now is to try to win the weekend, and it starts with Middle Tennessee. They are very well-coached. Kermit Davis has been in it for a long time. They're a team that's gone to the NCAA Tournament before, a program that's gone there five out of the last seven seasons. They shoot the ball a little bit like us as far as the number of threes, but they have five guys that are shooting them. In other words, their center is a three-point shooter, and so it will be a little different cover.
The Giddy Potts kid is leading the nation in three-point field goal percentage shooting at over 50 percent, so we'll have our hands full with that. And then they played a lot of guys, just like us. I think they've got 10 guys almost averaging in double figures.
You know, today and tomorrow we'll prepare for the whole weekend, and just kind of hone in on the task at hand first, which is Middle Tennessee on Wednesday and Thursday, and hopefully play Friday.
Questions, I'll take them all.
Q. You haven't played games bang, bang, bang like that since California, so having done it earlier in the year, did it help in the tournament, and having it happen so quickly now to the NCAA where it won't happen that quickly, is that a benefit?
TOM IZZO: I think it is a benefit. I think over in Italy we played three gamesin four days, and it started there, and then -- that's why it's so important that we went a few years without winning those preseason tournaments. I think playing a championship game and winning them, being on that stage, learning how to win a championship is important, and that's why I thought this weekend was so important.
Now, this was tougher. I mean, it was really tough on my staff and players. When you have 15 hours, 20 hours between games, and as far as prep time you had less than that, whether you go almost sleepless or not, there's only so much you can do. I thought we did a pretty good job of getting through thatin one day.
Now, we knew some of the teams, but it just happened we didn't play Maryland since the beginning of January, and we didn't play Purdue since the beginning of February. That was a little more unique, and of course we played Ohio State, I think, five times in a week. So that too was a unique situation.
I think it is going to help us. You get a day in between now that we've got our system down with a new video guy and everything, I think everybody understands their jobs.
Q. Alvin Ellis is a good kid, but there was a time when he just wasn't able to produce and now he's become a threat. Defensively he's there, he's making some shots. Would you just talk about his maturation?
TOM IZZO: Well, I think he matured as a person, and understanding that there are important things. Like you said, he was always a pretty good kid, but he's taken care of things off the court, in the classroom, and he's put more into his basketball, just like it's supposed to happen for any one of us. If you put more in, you usually get more out. He is becoming more of a threat, and he's starting to be more comfortable with himself, in his own skin, and we're comforting for us to feel we have somebody we can go to.
All the complaining I did and said I had to get my rotation down and all those things, we've actually done a pretty good job of utilizing our guys, and it's paying off now. It drove me nuts for a month, but shame on me, it's actually been a pretty big plus for us in the way things are going now.
Q. Going into that Big Ten Tournament, there was a lot of talk about it's been a while since you played in a tight game, and obviously you played in two in a row that were pretty close. Did you see what you wanted from the guys in terms of how they responded to I guess the high-pressure situations late in the games?
TOM IZZO: I don't know if I saw what I wanted to see, but what I saw was that we found a way to win. And that over anything else is the most important; do you find a way to win.
I think what else I found out is we're still a little bit -- we're not where we need to be in those last 10 minutes of games yet. We've got to tighten things up. That's the best word I can use. We've just got to tighten things up a little bit as far as when we're taking a chance on a play, when we're throwing it up, you know, what chances we're taking on defense, and what we want to run. That is maybe the hardest. Where do you want to go with different lineups and different teams and different teams you're playing.
It's going to give us a couple days here to work on us, and that's going to be a good thing. But probably the biggest thing I learned is the most important, and that's can you find a way to win. Sometimes no matter how you do it or how lucky you are or unlucky you are, if you can find a way to win, you grow into that, too, and with a guy like Denzel, he might make a mistake here and there, but he does an incredible job of finding a way to win.
Q. You talked about things you didn't even dream about. Have you allowed yourself at any moment to think about what it would be like Final Four weekend with your team and a chance to go in the Hall of Fame?
TOM IZZO: No. I really haven't done that yet. There's too many good teams in front of us. Do you dream about a Final Four? Yes. You always dream about a Final Four if you're at Michigan State. I think every year I do dream about that.
But it's a dream that you look at for a minute and then you realize how hard it is to get there and how lucky you've got to be and all the things you've got to go through because being good enough is just one factor in that, and the Hall of Fame thing is -- you know, it'll be like the No. 1 seed. It would be frosting on a cake. It's not an obsession right now. There's too many -- it's too far-fetched to worry about, and that's definitely not in my hands to worry about it.
I'm going to just worry about the things that are in my control, and that's preparing this team the best I can to be able to handle a lot of different situations.
Like I said earlier, the hard thing about the Big Ten or the NCAA Tournament is it's gotten so big, there are so many distractions, and I sure don't want my individual thing being a distraction even though you wouldn't get those things without players and teams and assistant coaches and administrators and all the people that help. We're going to leave this to our team and our program and try to see how far we can get. I'll worry about those other things if they happen and when they happen.
Q. Back to Denzel, he obviously works so hard on so many aspects of his game, but you've talked before about other guys, about changing personalities, which you believe can be done. I'm wondering how much has his personality changed. It seems like this year he's being more demonstrative at times, holding people accountable, which doesn't seem to be natural for him.
TOM IZZO: It's not. I told him it's his final frontier. It's the final thing he has to accomplish to go from, I don't know, great to elite, from really special to really, really special. I don't know what the words are.
But it is -- for a guy that has his knowledge, his ability to coach a team, his ability to drag people with him, there does come a time when even a team has to know on the floor when somebody talks, he's EF Hutton, you know, and to gain that, you have to have the ability to -- it doesn't always come by being a nice guy. And Denzel is a nice guy. He's well-respected. He's got the respect of his players. Once you have that, I say you have a license to almost do whatever you need to do.
He said something to me after the -- I think it was the Maryland game that really struck my buddy Mariucci who was sitting in the locker room, and I wasn't thrilled with how we played in that last little stretch, and I said, you want me to pat you on the back, you want me to chew you out, you want me to find a happy medium; what do you guys want. And Denzel says, "whatever it takes to win a championship." It doesn't matter, whatever it takes to win a championship.
And I think that was a hell of a statement by a 22-year-old kid. Boy, I've got a ton of respect for that statement. So maybe someday a few years from now that'll be in the locker room or that'll be like the moments of work to a lifetime of memories. That will be one of those clichÃ© lines that I didn't use, he used, and I thought it was outstanding.
Q. Two-parter for you. Your rotation seemed to use 10 or 11 guys on both Saturday and Sunday, and obviously with the Big Ten Tournament being so close together, was that something necessitated just out of fatigue and having the guys have so low recovery time?
TOM IZZO: You know, it really didn't. I pulled some guys really early. I let them know that certain things we've got to do, and I pulled Denzel early twice, and sometimes for 30 seconds just to tell him, you know, we can't -- we've got to do the things we need to do to win, and sometimes all of us make mistakes, including me.
That's how it started out. With the bigs we thought we'd have a rotation of -- I don't know if anybody in here has wrestled. My cousin was a college wrestler, and Mariucci's dad was a wrestling coach, so we used to wrestle some in the summers and work out with people wrestling, and you've never seen a sport where you can get some tired in three minutes. Well, my big guys were wrestling with monsters in there, and so it wasn't going up and down, just the grappling and wrestling and moving, I think it fatigued you more than sometimes the physical running.
That game plan was there. We did get in a little bit of foul trouble in the perimeter might have aided some of that, but we also started feeling some confidence Tum was feeling better, Alvin was playing better, Eron got in a little foul trouble, and we were worried when he got the one foul right off the bat in the Maryland game. We were worried that we can't lose him because we needed him for Trimble, so we looked at things that way.
Q. I know you always talk about Colby being vital to Deyonta's development, but how about in the second half yesterday Colby shoring up like Deyonta for that put-back when Matt missed the three.
TOM IZZO: God, if you would have heard our guys or saw our bench during that moment, it just tells you everything that I think all of us have talked about on how close this team is. Hell, I think Deyonta clapped, and he does that once a year, whether it's good or bad. He was excited for Colby. What a great play by Colby, a couple of great plays, but more than the scoring was the defense he played. I know he was swarming. He was all over. It was so fun, when we walked in last night, I said, hey, I know it's tough to not play for three games, and then all of a sudden you're playing, but as Colby always answers, I'll be ready when you need me. It's kind of like Denzel's. You do what you've got to do to make sure that we have a chance to win.
This team has done that at a level that supercedes, I think, any that I've ever had.
Q. After all these years of appearances, how much have you learned or how much do you tweak and change how you approach this time of year?
TOM IZZO: I think I made the biggest tweaks this year in my mind, and it was forced on us because of the fact that two, three weeks left we were almost out of the race, as strange as that is. I did go to this one-and-done approach in trying to make guys understand it. I heard somebody talking about it on TV last night, and they said, a coach said, you know, you've got to make players understand that in one-and-done time, it's different than the regular season, and I just laughed in my own office, to say, yeah. And we have to coach that way, too, though, and that sometimes doesn't go over big. We have to make sure that that means a guy that's always on people has got to almost double and triple it. That's hard, and it's hard for a coach because you have to balance it. You don't want to get him going too early.
Well, with this team, I just felt like I can get on my best player. I can do it every day if I wanted to. I can do it every day if I needed to. When you have that, that makes it so much easier for the rest of the guys, and so I mean, I started texting and talking and bringing 'Zel in three weeks ago and talking about this. We've got to prepare a little different if these are your goals and this is what you want to accomplish because the parity this year is so close. I said, there's going to be 8 seeds, 9 seeds, 10 seeds that are going to be really good, and the difference in those and the 1, 2 and threes is going to be so minimal that little things are going to matter.
So I think that's where I've probably changed the most. That doesn't mean it's going to work or not going to work, but I do think we've got to always adjust a little bit and tweak things.
Q. Have you seen the different type of growth this year late in the year?
TOM IZZO: You know, in my own way, that minute in the locker room when Denzel says you do whatever you've got to do, that means they grew. They means they understood it. That means they get it, because I don't want to be held accountable every minute of every day. I'd like to live my life a little bit, too.
When you're trying to get to the top of that pyramid, when only one team is left standing, you've got to do what you've got to do.
And I think when you look at programs that have won consistently, you know, I tried to look at and read up on some things that Belichick has done and what they've done there and why are they always knocking at the door with what some people would say not as good a talent other than their quarterback of a lot of teams. I've seen some teams that have great talent in Kentucky or Alabama in football and what they've done and how do you sustain that, and it's usually by grinding it. There's a couple of common denominators. Usually you're usually grinding it. You're usually a very good defensive team.
I mean, coaches need to get respect from players, too. It's not just given anymore. Let me promise you that. And I think when I started preaching as good as we were shooting it, every press conference I talked about I don't want to fall in love with the three-point shot. I don't want to become a jump shot shooting team. I don't want to make our game rely on how well we score. And I'd look around or I'd talk to people and people would look at me like, my God, you're shooting almost 50 percent from the three; chill out. It happened. We didn't shoot so well in two games, and we won a championship.
I think that gives players some understanding of what a coach is talking about, too.
Q. You were talking about some of these upsets over the years. How do you prepare these guys mentally for a game like this where the spread is probably pretty big but yet so important?
TOM IZZO: I've got a couple of my managers doing a little research on that right now as we speak. We'll have a team meeting today at 3:00. But I'm not going to scare them into anything. I just want to make sure they understand. I think this team is more prepared than some because I think that the day we got beat at Duke, in Denzel's mind, I'm on the planet, I'm on this earth for one reason and that's to try to get back here and do even more next year, and that's his mentality. That was his mentality in Italy. That was his mentality when he had hernia surgery. That was his mentality in the fall, and if there's one guy that's been more consistent than me it's been him as far as what he wants. Sometimes I've got to tell him, hey, those things don't always work out.
But he's been pretty consistent on that, and so I'm not as worried about not being ready. Those games we played, there wasn't one game I didn't think we were ready to play. Some games we played better or worse, but on that first game, we had just beaten Ohio State by 20 two games in a row, and there was no -- practices didn't go different. There was no entitlement.
I think this is a very un-entitled team in a good way and yet confident enough to be good in another way.
Q. You talked a lot about the 1 being icing on the cake, and earlier you said that if you had your choice you'd play on Friday. How did you feel when you found out you were No. 2 but you play on Friday and you go to Chicago?
TOM IZZO: Well, we're actually going to St. Louis, and that's one thing I've got to make sure everybody of our Spartan Nation understands. You can look at the 1-16 or 2-15 or 3-14 and there hasn't been a ton of upsets. A few but not a ton.
But those next games, there's some 8-9, 7-10 games that are going to be with real good teams. I'm definitely not looking past the weekend, and yet I am definitely looking to the weekend. But more importantly, on your question, I was hoping for a Friday game. I think any time you play Friday, Saturday,Sunday in a Big Ten Tournament with all that emotion, you've got to give the Big Ten credit on one thing, I mean, this setting has gotten to be really big-time. It's almost a Final Four like setting there with the video and what they do. It's pretty cool. But that is emotionally draining along with physically draining.
So you hope that you don't get sent out west on a Thursday, and we did that once with Draymond and lost, and I'm not saying it was because of that, but that makes it tough. We got home at midnight last night, and if we were looking at taking off tonight or tomorrow to go to wherever, I think it would be more difficult.
I was more excited about the Friday -- more excited we didn't have to travel far, yes, meaning St. Louis is one hour out of our time zone, and that's good, and not a long flight. So that and the Friday excited me the most.
The 1 seed, I mean, I can't say when we walked in there and we found out that there wasn't a little bit of down just because -- I'll tell you, the only thing for me that the 1 seed would have done, last night I heard Kansas has now been a 1 seed six out of the last 12 or 14 years, and I think we would have been -- I think we've been four, been a 1 seed four times since 2000 -- is it four? So four times, that would have been five. It just gives you -- it gives something else for your program to hang onto. It'll do nothing for winning, but right now this program means something to me and the respect the program gets.
That was the only thing about it. As far as the games go, it had no bearing.
Q. Deyonta, can you talk about the things that you can't coach that he brings to the table and the things that you can coach that he can improve on that he has?
TOM IZZO: Well, I teased Denzel that you can throw a lob from your ankle and it's completed, but if you threw it anywhere in the building, Deyonta is probably like Mr. Gadget. Did you ever see that show? Where he'd just crank that arm and probably would have dunked it anyway. I can't give Denzel enough credit for the pass. That's one of the things Deyonta does that it's hard to coach. I tried coaching that, it just doesn't work with my size.
He's coming. He's getting better every day. He's still -- like every freshman, there's a little inconsistency. When you get a senior and a Deyonta, I think they take advantage and he gets in a little foul trouble because he hasn't learned how to foul the right way and not get caught, and he hasn't learned to do the things that you've got to do to survive.
But he's really getting better, and he's getting better every day. He's believe it or not fun to coach 90 percent of the time. There's 10 percent you're frustrated because you know he could have played harder or can do this better, I've got seniors that can do that, but he's a gifted kid that -- no ego, humble, gets along with everybody, and starting to laugh, smile, and clap. So we're making progress on the court and off.
Q. You alluded to Potts and Middle Tennessee's ability to shoot the three. First of all, what do you know about him as a shooter? Is he more with the ball, off the ball, and secondly, can you talk a little bit about your defense around the arc and what you've seen from your guys this year and their improvement?
TOM IZZO: Well, he seems to be able to shoot it anywhere. He's got it in his hands some, but he's coming off some picks some, too. But as far as my team goes, you know, it's ironic that Eron Harris, since about the middle of January, has really bought into being a defensive player. I mean, it's amazing. He's bought in from how he works to how he thinks to the film he watches. I mean, in all aspects he's really bought in.
He's talking more and can say more than even Denzel right now, and that's progress.
The second one is Bryn. I mean, he goes 1 for 6 from the three and we've got him in there, and we've got him in there because he's playing defense now. He's communicating. He's doing things. I think those two guys have grown enormously. I think Denzel was always a -- like a Draymond, he's a good defensive player by brains, and he can get away with some things.
The other thing that was encouraging, I thought Tum has really been -- has struggled the last, I don't know what he's been back, three weeks, two and a half weeks, where he's playing a little bit more. He's struggled, and I thought he played his best game both defensively and offensively.
Those things are encouraging because in this league you're going to -- in this tournament you're going to run into some teams with some really good guards. Alvin Ellis has been able to play a little bit more and been better defensively. I don't know one of those guys that hasn't gotten -- the guy that hasn't gotten better defensively for the most part is Tum because he's kind of been the same, but those other guys have all upgraded their defense because I think they communicate more and they do more together. I think that helps your defense. We're kind of a real team defensive team. We don't have necessarily just a lock-down guy like a Cleaves who will just get into you or a Travis Walton who will just get into you. We're more of a team defensive team.
Q. You mentioned a lot at the beginning of the year, how you didn't know what it was but you just felt really, really good, but lately it seems like you've been on a bit of an edge lately. You're still having fun with this group of guys, right, and what's it like to finally be at tournament time?
TOM IZZO: I'm glad tournament time is here. It's a long season when you start playing 32, 33 games, 34 games. But there had better be an edge. There had better be an edge. I'm going to be polite and like you to tell Belichick that there's no edge in playoff time or tournament time. Playoff time, tournament time, more things matter. They do in coaching, they do in playing. Conventional wisdom will tell you that every game is the same, and I'm not a good conventional wisdom guy. There are bigger games than others. You hope to coach them all the same in some ways, but you also understand when you've been in it a while that everybody is human, and right now the edge is -- there's never an edge if you don't think you have a chance. If you're a 1 in 50 chance, there's no edge. You don't have to be on edge. In fact, you might go the other way because you're worried about your team not feeling good about themselves.
What's been a blessing for me is this team is confident enough to be great but cocky enough to be great, too, and I think you've got to be a little bit of both, and you've got to be egoless and selfless, and I think this team has all those qualities.
I struggle once in a while if 'Zel still makes a bad pass because he's too good to make passes across his body. They get picked off. I struggle if Costello is missing a lay-up or not doing the things that he's supposed to do because he's smart enough and good enough to do them. It's just getting those guys to realize that, and I think the more I push them -- like I said, I don't think Denzel's statement will be here forever, I know it will be, because that's the way it should be. And that's the way I'd say to someone, you pushed me to the point where I can accomplish the goals I've set, and I'm going to take it. I might not like it, but I'm going to take it, and that's the trust that I think players got to have in coaches and coaches got to have in players.
Q. On Goins, any chance of him going this weekend, and if you don't have him back do you feel like you've got things figured out at the 4 or are there some match-up situations where he could really be handy?
TOM IZZO: I was comfortable not playing him until we played Maryland, and then I watched that tape and he played 25 or 26 minutes in that game, and as you watch that tape, there's just some things he can do better than some of our other guys. We've got Marvin maybe shoots it a little better than this guy, but Kenny had long arms, he's 6'6", 6'7", a little bigger, and can really cover that pick-and-pop 6'8" 4 man. He's almost strong enough to cover him in the block. He's very smart, so his help defense in that game was off the charts, and something I didn't realize during it until you're missing it, and then you kind of see it.
Kenny Goins would really help us, and the best I can hope for maybe is the second weekend to be a spot player if we're in foul trouble. But I just think the amount of time he's had off, the chances are slim to none that he'll get in any in the rotation, at least as of right now. You never know; a week ago he couldn't do anything, then all of a sudden I come the next day after I tell you guys, he's out there shooting. That's as far as it's gone. He's not stepped foot in a drill. I think he's done a few lay-ups. It's been strange.
Hernia surgery he recovered faster than anybody we've had by two weeks. This one it's just been a slower recovery, and that's too bad for us because I still say, you know, that's one of the -- I guess if I looked at -- I heard Calipari go off, as only he can, and the only thing I agreed with there, and these injuries are part of it, when what is the criteria for these things, it seems to be changing every year on what they want. Kenny Goins would make us a better team, and he's just another one of the four or five guys that we've had injured for a significant period of time that I think would have helped us.