Am I the only one scratching my head about this?
How can a team with this many Mr. Basketballs – this many McDonald's All-Americans – this many highly touted recruits not manage a win for so long against top competition?
To me, it all goes back to a nine month stretch during 2003:
March 30, 2003: NCAA Regional Final – Texas 85, Michigan State 76
The Spartans, led by Freshman Forwards Paul Davis and Erazem Lorbeck, unexpectedly reach the Elite Eight before losing to the #1 seed Longhorns in the South Regional Final at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio. The loss kept the Spartans from reaching their fourth Final Four in five years. Nevertheless, Tom Izzo's program looked stronger than ever with Davis and Lorbeck, along with 2003 sophomores Chris Hill, Alan Anderson and Kelvin Torbert all expected back for 2004.
April 9, 2003: Spartan associate head coach Brian Gregory named new Head Coach at Dayton
Tom Izzo's top assistant was one of the unsung hero's in Michigan State's rise to prominence; skilled as a recruiter, Gregory was instrumental in bringing in four Top Ten recruiting classes at Michigan State.
Gregory was the fourth Izzo assistant in eight years to take a job as a Division I head coach. Stan Joplin left after Izzo's first season to take over the Toledo program. Tom Crean left for Marquette following the 1998-99 season. In 2003, Crean directed the Golden Eagles to the Final Four. Following the 2000-01 season, Stan Heath became the head coach at Kent State, leading the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in the 2002 NCAA Tournament, before taking the Arkansas' head coaching position.
April 18, 2003: Spartan assistant coach Mike Garland named Cleveland State Men's Basketball Coach
In his tenure with the Spartans, Garland helped coach MSU to six NCAA Tournaments, four Big Ten Championships, two Big Ten Tournament Championships, three Final Fours and one National Championship.
A friend, teammate and colleague of Tom Izzo's since their college days at Northern Michigan, Garland was responsible for scouting and game analysis, off-campus recruiting and academics, as well as MSU's self-scouting and individual improvement. His instruction helped six Spartans to be selected in the NBA Draft from 2000 thru 2002 (Mateen Cleaves, Andre Hutson, Morris Peterson, Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson and Marcus Taylor).
There is little question that both Gregory and Garland were extremely important to the success of the Michigan State program, and would both leave big shoes to fill with their departures.
May 8, 2003: Tom Izzo Named Head Coach of USA Basketball's Pan American Games' Squad
The honor of leading a squad of U.S. collegians on the global stage is a once in a lifetime opportunity for any coach. The drawback would be the Pan American schedule – with team trials scheduled for May 30-June 1 in Colorado Springs – team training July 21-28 in Orlando – and the games themselves during the first week of August in the Dominican Republic – Izzo will have little respite from the grind that is coaching during what is supposed to be basketball's downtime. The fact that it would occur during a time of transition inside his own program would add to the stress of his already busy schedule.
May 9, 2003: Erazem Lorbeck decides to enter the NBA Draft
Lorbeck surprises everyone when he unexpectedly decides to leave Michigan State for the professional ranks. The Slovenian native averaged 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds as a freshman reserve. His departure increases the pressure on Paul Davis and his development as the Spartans' main inside scoring threat.
Oct. 15, 2003: 2003-04 Media Day, East Lansing
The new season of promise, and expectations, had arrived and the Spartans were set to embark on one of the most daunting non-conference schedules NCAA history. Games versus Kansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse were scheduled on the road or at neutral sites between November 25, 2003, and January 3, 2004. However, it was a home game against Duke at the Breslin Center on December 3, 2003, that would be earmarked by everyone as the litmus test for the Michigan State men's basketball program.
Expectedly and correctly, Tom Izzo advised everyone to temper their excitement and expectations with a dose of perspective:
"We're going to have to realize in the non-conference that fans can get excited about a win or depressed about a loss, but we're not really going to have time to do that. Not only do the games come so quick and with no rest, we can't really beat up on somebody after we lose to somebody. We're going to have to make sure we don't get too high after a win or too low after a loss. Managing that will be a lot harder than managing our playing group. The managing the success and failure in the non-conference will be a step that this program has had to deal with maybe once or twice, but not very often."
December 3, 2003: Duke 72, Michigan State 50
Duke hands Michigan State its most-lopsided loss at the Breslin Center since a 25-point defeat to Minnesota (68-43) on January 4, 1997 - a span of 106 games.
The Blue Devils took control of the game in the first half with a 20-2 run during which the Spartans committed 17 of their 20 turnovers.
Michigan State didn't have a player score in double figures, after entering the game with six averaging at least 9.8 points. Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert each scored eight, while Paul Davis had seven points and Alan Anderson had four points and five turnovers.
Davis and Anderson were both benched for much of the second half. At one point late in the game, Tom Izzo went down to the end of the bench and sat between both players. Later, Izzo related to a reporter what he said to Davis, his then-sophomore center, in that semi-private setting:
"I kept asking 'Why?' " Izzo said. "'Did you think you were leaving (to enter the NBA draft next spring)? Did you think it was over? Did you think it was just going to be that easy? Why?"
In the post-game press conference, Tom Izzo was as volatile as he has ever been on the podium after a game. Below is just some of what he said at the time:
"There is no question that I owe an apology to all of you because that was a disgusting display of basketball. . . . We played scared. . . . It just got to a point where it didn't seem like we wanted to play and this is my responsibility, so I owe an apology to 15,000 people. Today was a big day for me, a big day for our program and we got kicked. There are no excuses when a team is so inept, because the coach should be blamed and it is my job. As I said, I don't think that I have ever been more disappointed in the team's performance in the nine years that I have been a coach here.
"The buck stops here and I have to find a way to way to change the mentality of this team, because right now we are a soft team. We just played scared. I couldn't believe the first 10 minutes of that game. I have never seen anything like that, not at Kansas, not against anybody, not on TV. We didn't give ourselves a chance to win. You can't turn it over 17 times in a half against an average team and we did that against a great team.
"This is what I live for and there had better be some players who are living for it too. There may be distractions, but for me, this is it. This was a big night for me. I wasn't putting all of our eggs in one game, but I was expecting an effort beyond belief and the fans deserve that. We didn't give them that and I guess that is what I feel the worst about.
"It's about time some boys became men. If that means I'm calling them out, I am. It was a ridiculous display, that first half. And there's no excuse for it."
The Final Analysis:
In athletics, regardless of the sport, it's possible that in the buildup toward a big game, the mental preparation and intensity needed to prepare for the game can be so intense – that when the actual competition begins – the physical intensity and effort needed for the game itself fails to meet that same level of mental readiness and intensity that's already been established.
When that happens, that player or team has the potential for complete collapse.
When you couple the total collapse of a team in a big game with a post-game public lambasting by that team's leader; it can destroy the confidence of an entire group of players.
Once that confidence is destroyed, it can be very difficult to recapture.
The Michigan State Spartans are a talented hardworking team, with a talented hardworking head coach; anyone who would question that needs to have their head examined.
There is also no question that this team has not been the same since that game in the Breslin Center back on December 3, 2003.