Tom Izzo Embraces what was one of his most rewarding seasons personally with one of his most challenging professionally.
I have honored and privileged to have a court side seat for the career of the Spartan Hall of Fame head man Tom Izzo. Over that time he has grown from a man I cover, to my friend. I say that not to brag, but as full disclosure that I have seen a lot.
I have watched incredibly talented teams on the court that off the court where nothing short of a nightmare. This year I watched what has probably been the best group of players from the top of the roster to the bottom in their personal character while the most inexperienced on the court in Izzo’s career. They have been incredibly fun to cover as human beings and frustrating on the court.
So before we both headed here to Tulsa I asked Izzo about that fact. He said, “I really think it was. It’s definitely our most challenging year just because different things happened throughout too. It wasn’t just the start of it in losing the two bigs. It wasn’t just the freshmen and it wasn’t losing Miles (Bridges) and it wasn’t just losing Eron, it was just a combination of the whole thing and kind of each month took on something new. So, that was challenging and I guess frustrating at times.”
Izzo went on to add “I mean this when I say it, it’s been enjoyable, for as painful as some of its been, to work with incredible guys. To work with a player like Miles to say the least one of the better players I’ve had that can take coaching, that wants to get better, wants to work on his game, wants to be a blue collar guy, wants to be a great teammate. Those things are a joy and a treat so I’m going to embrace those parts of it. All those freshmen have been good kids. Our seniors embraced the freshmen, that doesn’t happen. I’ve talked to a few programs now that are struggling with that. So there’s been a lot of good. The other good is I’ve had to change the way I coach, I’ve had to change what I do. I have to look at ball screens, look at this different. Try to make some adjustments to some negatives that we have and try to take some positive that we have, getting the ball into Nick Ward more. It’s been an evolution of things throughout the year that’s been ever-changing and here we are still.”
But sometimes people forget how young this team is. Think about the fact that even with the four freshmen, Izzo only has three players with real NCAA minutes. “When you look at Tum (LouRawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr.) and Alvin (Ellis III) have played more than 15 career minutes in the NCAA Tournament. (Matt) McQuaid played like 14 last year.”
Izzo continued with the youth theme, “I just got done with my practice plan. We are still working on some fundamental things. We are still tweaking some things that you just don’t do this time of year but it’s been good, it’s been good. Like I said I think I became at peace with it at the Nebraska game down there, just understanding everything.”
But if you think that his frustration with youth at times has made this season anything but fun, you would be really wrong. “I’ve really enjoyed the chance to appreciate what we’ve had here because I don’t take the time to appreciate it. Do I like it? Nope, but I want to go through it. Hopefully I’m done in my career going through it. Once every seven, eight, 10 years would be fine but don’t want this to be a regular stop, but I have appreciated the players, how they’ve hung in there. I’ve appreciated what they’ve done. Probably even you guys and the fans, I think for the most part you do understand the way it’s been. It’s just been different than any year I ever dreamed about here. The two other years when we were on bubbles were for different reasons than this year. This year it’s been an enjoyable bubble if there is any such thing, an enjoyable bubble. I’ve kind of had a very good appreciation for it and now I’m hoping that we can take it and go somewhere.
This young team has the chance to do a lot. Izzo thinks his Spartans can make a big run. ”I do think and I don’t want to convince you and I don’t have to convince me, we are good enough to lose any game we play right now, but we are good enough to win them and we are just going to have to play at that level. Our defense has to shore up a little bit, our rebounding, we are going to have to make shots but if we continue not to turn the ball over, if we continue to shoot better at the line.”
But while MSU has some warts with youth, that doesn’t mean other teams, are super model perfect and Izzo did point that out. “When you watch all these other teams, meaning I’m watching Miami against Duke, Miami against North Carolina, Miami against Virginia, Miami against Virginia Tech, Miami against Georgia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, all the teams that you’ve heard so much about you start saying, ‘Hey wait a minute, they don’t cover that ball screen so well either. Their junior isn’t closing out on that guy or that senior didn’t cut that guy out.’ It almost gave me even more of an appreciation. We are all going through the same things, it’s to try to get consistency within your program, which I think 20 years would give us some consistency in the program but then each team needs consistency. That, I don’t think we’ve had as good this year and we are still working for it.
So what does Izzo think of the matchup with the Hurricanes? “Well they do some things that I think will create some problems for us. The length at the guards and wings position I think creates a little bit of an issue for us. I like the fact that they don’t have a true post player to go in to like Minnesota did. It’s not like they have a pick and pop five like some teams have so there’s some advantages there. We’ve always prided ourselves on being one of the tougher teams and that. We aren’t quite that this year and this team is that. The way they control tempo is going to be interesting to see if we can still run against them because they’ve done a pretty good job, they held Duke to 50 points. It’s not like their defensive field goal percentage is that good. Somebody said they play like a very athletic and longer Wisconsin team, which means they can control what they want to control. Jim is a very good coach; he’s done it at different levels, so they’re playing that style with even better players so that’ll be the challenge.”
Whether the Spartans take a first round loss like last season or make a run to the Final Four, this season has been fun. Certainly a long March run could make it go from fun to memory making and historic, but it has been a joy. This team proves good guys can have success. It is even more special to see Izzo as he finishes his second decade of straight NCAA appearances to watch him having so much fun doing it.