INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Izzo likes championships. Of course, he likes winning them most of all, but he likes to watch them, too.
The environment, the excitement, the energy, it all gets the Michigan State coach’s blood going.
Izzo thought it might be good for his team, a team he thought had the promise of a champion itself, to experience that championship atmosphere.
So back in December, when the Spartans’ football team faced Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, he packed up his team for a road trip, bringing it to Indianapolis to watch the game.
Michigan State won and Izzo was ready to leave, figuring they wouldn’t get back until the wee hours of the morning, but his players stopped him.
“They said, ‘No, Coach, we have to stay for the ceremony,’” Izzo said. “So we started the season learning how to win a championship from our football buddies and now we have a chance ourselves.”
The Spartans, who beat Wisconsin 83-75 to reach the Big Ten tournament final, get a shot at their own ceremony Sunday, when they face Michigan. Strange as it might seem, it is the first time that the two Michigan schools have met in a Big Ten tourney game -- not just a final, but any game.
The Wolverines, after holding off Ohio State in their own semifinal, will be playing for a chance at the fourth No. 1 seed. It’s a standing that seems to be getting passed around like a toxic hot potato.
The Spartans will be playing to prove that they finally are the team everyone thought they could be.
Mix in an in-state rivalry and this should be good.
“It’s Michigan,” Adreian Payne said by way of explanation.
Neither team will be a popular draw when the bracket is announced on Sunday night, but the Spartans could be the more frightening choice.
Michigan snuck by Illinois and survived the Buckeyes.
Michigan State blew the doors off of Northwestern and pulverized Wisconsin in the first half, leading by 17.
This is what the Spartans were supposed to look like all season, before Izzo started issuing Band-Aids with Gatorade, before injuries hijacked what might have been.
He called this the “most difficult year of his career,” but it might wind up being his most enjoyable. He’s always liked this team, enjoys the players and the lack of drama. He just has not been able to enjoy coaching them.
And now, he might finally get his chance.
The Michigan State team that attacked Wisconsin was downright scary, taking it to the Badgers in every which way -- taking it to a Wisconsin team, we might add, that could have played for a 1-seed itself with a win against the Spartans.
Izzo labeled that half the best his team has played this season, but his players thought they could get even better.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface,” said Payne, who scored 18 points against the Badgers.
There’s not a lot of time to work out the kinks. Next week begins the most unforgiving tournament in sports, and so this trip to the Big Ten tournament has had value because the Spartans have simply been able to play games together.
Of course that’s not why they came here exactly.
These Spartans started the season watching their football team enjoy a championship ceremony in Indianapolis.
Now they want one of their own.