Spartans back to playing Izzo-ball
Last season's struggles all but forgotten as MSU plays with sense of purpose
PHOENIX -- It's almost like the summer of 2010 and the 2010-11 season never happened.
You certainly wouldn't know it from looking at the latest edition of the Michigan State Spartans.
Tom Izzo's team is back in the hunt for March glory, seeded No. 1 in the West Region and ready to square off with No. 4 Louisville on Thursday night. Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green leads a team defined by its distinctly Izzo-ian qualities: physicality, defense, rebounding, collective effort, intelligence, all of which have combined to form a team much greater than the sum of its parts.
The coach, for his part, seems at home. He seems, well, comfortable in his own skin (soap commercials notwithstanding). "I've always said I'm a blue-collar guy, and I belong to a blue-collar university, and I'm damn proud of it," Izzo said Wednesday. "I really am, in all aspects."
It's hard to imagine that just last season, Izzo went through one of the most challenging years of his career. It's hard to imagine, hearing Izzo describe how much he loves Saturday mornings on Michigan State's campus, that in the summer of 2010 he very nearly said goodbye to the college ranks forever.
Yes, things are back to normal in Spartanville, USA. And the 16 months that preceded this return -- to national prominence, to the Sweet 16 (Izzo's 10th in 15 seasons), to normality -- only make the present accomplishments feel sweeter. "The only way you can do that is if you have people that are regular people," Izzo said. "Sometimes, the highest-profile athletes, you've got to make sure you surround them with some regular guys. "I don't think I'd be as effective if I had sometimes I'd like to have, you know, some of these rosters. But I like my roster. I like the way it was built, and I've got some pretty good players that are getting better."
For the decade or so that preceded them, Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans were Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans. They played great defense. They rebounded. They exuded toughness and grit and discipline and all the other intangible qualities sports fans love to talk about over plates of wings and ranch. And whatever the Spartans lacked in skill or elite, NBA-ready talent -- which they just as often had -- Izzo made up for in coaching guile in an almost mythical ability to win in the NCAA tournament.
The 2008-09 or 2009-10 teams were not vintage Izzo outfits, but they played like it in March. The coach made his sixth Final Four appearance in 12 years, an absolutely mind-blowing high rate that most coaches, even the nation's best, would be utterly thrilled to match.
Izzo's program was chugging along, perched atop the Big Ten, with the promise of March magic always around the corner.
But in the summer of 2010, Izzo seriously contemplated leaving Michigan State for the NBA. He took a few weeks to weigh Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's offer -- this lowercase-D decision was happening in parallel to LeBron James "The Decision" -- and Izzo eventually stayed.
When he returned, he was back to coach a team that had likewise retained much of the talent from the consecutive Final Four berths. The Spartans were ranked No. 4 in the nation to begin the 2010-11 season but consistently underwhelmed and underachieved amid rumors of apathy and outright dysfunction.
Before the season, Izzo dismissed guard Chris Allen. During the season, he rid the program of backup point guard Korie Lucious. He contended with seemingly lackluster effort from Durrell Summers and even Kalin Lucas, all the while once-promising forward Delvon Roe battled the recurring knee injuries that eventually ended his career before the start of the 2011-12 season.
The 2010-11 Spartans made it to the tournament but bowed out in their first game. Rather than storming through March in unlikely fashion -- how many times did the college basketball writers of the world say "never count an Izzo team out"? -- Michigan State merely limped to the finish.
On Wednesday, Izzo was asked whether this team more closely "fit his personality" -- a polite way to say that this season's team, as opposed to last year's impassive bunch, actually, you know, cares. As usual, the coach was honest.
"Yes, I'll give you the real answer: There is some truth to that," Izzo said. "I think you've got to do who you are and what you are. And that doesn't mean you can't have excellence. But I think you have to be careful. You have to be able to coach guys."
Needless to say, Izzo can coach these guys. Green is one of the best leaders in college basketball, a player who not only does just about everything for his team on the floor but also leads in constant vocal fashion (even from the media-room podium). Senior guard Austin Thornton also has taken on a leadership role, and the Spartans boast a tough point guard presence in sophomore Keith Appling. Forward Derrick Nix -- who was nearly kicked off the team in 2011 -- has lost almost 70 pounds, transforming his body and game.
Throughout the team, there is a palpable sense of togetherness, of shared purpose, that was clearly lacking last season. Does it sound obvious? Sure. But the importance of such a quality -- so fleeting in college hoops and so difficult to establish among elite high school players and AAU stars -- can't be overrated. "When you see guys who put a lot of work in, take care of business both on and off the court, it's fun to be a part of and watch them be successful," Thornton said.
"I think that's been a key thing," Green said. "I think the most important thing that I've done, with the help of Austin, is making sure that the team stays together, sticks together, no matter what the situation is. If you want to give credit, I think that's what should be given credit to is helping guys to stick together, because I think that's the most important thing with any team."
The subtext is clear: The difference between this season's Michigan State (No. 1 seed, Big Ten champ and eyes on a national title) and last season's disappointing bunch isn't talent. It isn't skill (although Green's massive senior season, the improvements of Nix and forward Adreian Payne, and additions of guards Brandon Wood and Travis Trice have certainly helped). It's something far more meaningful, and far less tangible, than that.
"This is not the most talented team I've had," Izzo said. "It's not even in the top five, six or seven in my mind. But it's been -- it should be a learning team for a lot of people out there in high school or college, that there are a lot of ways you can get it done. If everybody sticks together, you can get it done."
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.