In doing so, they proved their doubters wrong – and in Tom Izzo's words "proved themselves right."
I am not one who believes that college athletes should be called losers or chokers for what they do on the court. It bothered me when this team was labeled as such by some fans and members of the media.
Maybe it comes from the fact that I was once an athlete myself. Although, I was never had loads of talent and never played on the college level – just high school – I played as hard as I could. I played on teams both good and bad. On a playoff team, and an undefeated team, and once on a team that went lost seven-straight games to end a season. During that time I got to understand a little bit about "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
No athlete likes to be called a loser; especially when they are not getting paid a wage for their efforts.
Because of those reasons, I never saw this Spartan team as soft. I never saw them as chokers. I just saw a group of players who for the better part of a year and a half had been trying to find the one thing that, when missing, will bring any athlete, or team, to their knees – a lack of confidence.
Confidence can be an athlete's greatest weapon, or their greatest foe. When you have a confidant athlete, or team at the top of their game, you have Paul Davis against North Carolina; Shannon Brown against Kentucky; Chris Hill against Syracuse; Michigan State against Duke.
Confidence can be gained in a number of ways. It can also be lost a number of ways. However, once it's lost – it can be very tough to get back.
In the middle of this recently finished season, I wrote a column detailing why I felt that this team was struggling, and from where I felt those struggles originated – which in my opinion was the home game against Duke back on December 3, 2003.
That game was the moment when a large portion of this year's Final Four team had an absolute meltdown on the court. In that game, 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 before going on to lose, 72-50.
However, what was more unfortunate, and more damaging long term, than the team's on-court meltdown, was the postgame meltdown of their head coach, Tom Izzo.
In the post-game press conference, 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."
Now make no mistake, I am not opposed to a coach getting on their players, just do it behind closed doors. I think that Izzo's public lambasting of his team that night damaged not only his team's confidence, but it established a base for the media and fan criticism that dogged him and his team for the last year and a half.
To Izzo's credit, he has set a very high standard for himself, his program, and his players. He is only one of two coaches in college basketball history to take their teams to four Final Fours in their first ten years on the job. His program is one of the best in the country, even before this season. He doesn't need to prove anything to anyone – yet he continues to harp on the way that this team was treated by some who watched and covered them.
"I'm confused because I hear this a lot, 'Well, you set the standards. Well, you expect them to be great.' Like trying to blame me for the criticism. That's ridiculous, too."
No, it's not ridiculous Coach – when you publicly describe your team as "inept," "soft" and "scared," and follow that up with "It's about time that some boys became men," you have to expect that there will be many fans and media people who will follow your lead when the next tough loss takes place.
If Tom Izzo wants to have an elite program, he must also accept the scrutiny, pressure and occasional criticism that comes with it.
Especially when it was Izzo himself who set the tone for the criticism.
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