Originally Published: July 2, 2014

Top 50 coaches: No. 3 Tom Izzo

By ESPN.com

Editor's note: Over five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 3: Michigan State's Tom Izzo. On Thursday, we will release No. 2 and No. 1.


Typically, time and distance confer a sense of inevitability. The further we get from March and April, the more the team that won the national title was always going to win the national title, no matter how unlikely it was at the time.

In the case of the 2014 Connecticut Huskies, the opposite is true. At the time, UConn was impressive but not really shocking; even as a No. 7 seed, they never felt like impossible underdogs. They were still UConn, after all. The threat was always acknowledged. Now, though, three months' distance somehow affords us a wider, fuller view. And really, the whole thing is startling.

Consider it. In six straight games, UConn survived red-hot St. Joe's; handled four-loss, No. 2-seeded Villanova; outlasted hobbled but dangerous No. 3-seed Iowa State; knocked out a Michigan State team that was seeded No. 4; smothered clear, overall favorite Florida in the Final Four; and somehow managed to down obscenely talented, suddenly indestructible Kentucky, which had downed Wichita State, Michigan, Louisville and Wisconsin en route to the final.

The turning point -- the point at which UConn morphed from a dangerous early-round upstart into a genuine national title threat -- was its game against Michigan State.

To many, this author included, it was inconceivable that the Spartans would miss the Final Four. They had everything on their side: Talent, experience, size, and finally, after an injury-plagued Big Ten campaign, health.

More than anything, though, they had Tom Izzo. And Izzo had a group of seniors that hadn't yet been to a Final Four in their careers. And no senior to ever play for Izzo failed to reach at least one Final Four in his career. Seriously: Was there a safer Final Four bet on the board?

Expecting Final Fours is silly, because getting to the Final Four is insanely hard. Here's the most impressive thing you can say about Izzo, then: In his 19 seasons in East Lansing, Izzo has made the whole thing look so rote that it's more surprising when his teams don't get to the Final Four than when they do.

That is just one of many impressive things about Izzo, obviously. The No. 3-ranked coach in our ESPN Forecast top 50 poll has long since established, and consistently maintained, Michigan State's status as one of the best and most successful basketball programs in the country. It's easy to forget how quickly Michigan State got good under Izzo: In just his third season, 1997-98, he won the Big Ten title. In his fourth, he went to the Final Four. In his fifth, Mateen Cleaves and Co. won the national title. The Spartans haven't missed the tournament since.

In 2008-09 and 2009-10, Izzo took two very good but hardly vintage teams to back-to-back Final Fours. In 2010-11 -- perhaps the only disappointing season of Izzo's past decade -- many of those same players mentally checked out. It was a weird 19-15 year, a drastically bad one by the Spartans' usual standards, and they still finished fourth in the Big Ten and got to the NCAA tournament anyway.

In the past three seasons, the Spartans have averaged 28.3 wins. They won the Big Ten once, and finished second twice. Two major conference powers -- Michigan and Indiana -- have risen from the relative dead in these past three years. Both programs are not only playing Michigan State on the court, but recruiting against it in Michigan, Chicago, and Indiana. Injuries to Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne -- the Spartans' core -- occasionally crippled Michigan State. Still Izzo has kept winning.

Tom Izzo
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMichigan State has never suffered a losing season under Izzo and has not missed the NCAA tournament since 1997.

And that's all of the macro stuff. In the micro, Izzo might be even more highly regarded. His game-to-game scouting acumen, his ability to develop players in the long and short terms, his stylistic flexibility, the way his teams rebound, his array of layered inbounds plays -- all of these things make coaches and basketball strategy geeks act like Xbox fanboys at an E3 press conference. There's a question basketball people sometimes ask: If you had one game to win, and both teams were equal, who would you choose to coach it? I can't remember a time when the consensus answer wasn't "Izzo."

And where the media are concerned, no coach is more honest about himself or his own team. Izzo press conferences are the original no-spin zone.

So, yeah: There are a lot of impressive things about Tom Izzo.

That first statistic was the craziest, though. It's the one that in March's flurry of radio calls and preview videos and bracket consultations with friends could always count on to raise an eyebrow: No senior at Michigan State under Izzo has ever failed to appear in at least one Final Four. I mentioned it regularly, and rightly so. For 19 years, Izzo was the best guarantee in the business: Come play for me, go to a Final Four.

Connecticut ended that streak. Winning a national title is impressive in its own right. Beating Florida and Kentucky in Dallas was pretty good, too. But stopping Izzo six points short of the Final Four? "Startling" is a pretty good place to start.

-- Eamonn Brennan


Previous: Nos. 50-25 » No. 24: McKillop » No. 23: McDermott » No. 22: Amaker »
No. 21: Brown » No. 20: Matta » No. 19: Wright » No. 18: Fisher » No. 17: Few »
No. 16: Williams » No. 15: Hoiberg » No. 14: Bennett » No. 13: Smart »
No. 12: Boeheim » No. 11: Miller » No. 10: Ollie » No. 9: Beilein » No. 8: Marshall »
No. 7: Ryan » No. 6 Self » No. 5 Pitino » No. 4 Krzyzewski »

Full Top 50 Coaches List

No. 50: Tie -- Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's; Scott Drew, Baylor

No. 49: Richard Pitino, Minnesota

No. 48: Stew Morrill, Utah State

No. 47: Bob Hoffman, Mercer

No. 46: John Thompson III, Georgetown

No. 45: Mike Brey, Notre Dame

No. 44: Rick Barnes, Texas

No. 43: Chris Mack, Xavier

No. 42: Josh Pastner, Memphis

No. 41: Ed Cooley, Providence

No. 40: Bruce Weber, Kansas State

No. 39: Tubby Smith, Texas Tech

No. 38: Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech

No. 37: Rick Byrd, Belmont

No. 36: Steve Alford, UCLA

No. 35: Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's

No. 34: Tad Boyle, Colorado

No. 33: Fran McCaffery, Iowa

No. 32: Tim Miles, Nebraska

No. 31: Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

No. 30: Bob Huggins, West Virginia

No. 29: Jim Crews, Saint Louis

No. 28: Jim Larranaga, Miami

No. 27: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

No. 26: Archie Miller, Dayton

No. 25: Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

No. 24: Bob McKillop, Davidson

No. 23: Greg McDermott, Creighton

No. 22: Tommy Amaker, Harvard

No. 21: Larry Brown, SMU

No. 20: Thad Matta, Ohio State

No. 19: Jay Wright, Villanova

No. 18: Steve Fisher, San Diego State

No. 17: Mark Few, Gonzaga

No. 16: Roy Williams, North Carolina

No. 15: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

No. 14: Tony Bennett, Virginia

No. 13: Shaka Smart, VCU

No. 12: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse

No. 11: Sean Miller, Arizona

No. 10: Kevin Ollie, UConn

No. 9: John Beilein, Michigan

No. 8: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State

No. 7: Bo Ryan, Wisconsin

No. 6: Bill Self, Kansas

No. 5: Rick Pitino, Louisville

No. 4: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke

No. 3: Tom Izzo, Michigan State

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