Michigan State basketball: Tom Izzo, Spartans out to prove doubters wrong once again
Tom Izzo has been here before.
In fact, he’d likely admit too many of his recent Michigan State squads have found themselves needing a late-season push after turbulent starts to reach their potential and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. This season’s Spartans are only the latest addition. But if history is an indication — and Izzo has plenty of that, having coached Michigan State for 29 seasons and making the tournament each of the past 25 times it has been played — then the Spartans will find a way to get there once again.
Recent indications are looking positive. Sunday’s win at Maryland was Michigan State’s 3rd straight, helping the Spartans reach a season-high 5 games above .500 (at 12-7 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten). And they’ve taken advantage of a bye this week, with their next game coming Friday, a trip to Madison to take on the 13th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in what might be MSU’s biggest game yet of the conference season. If Michigan State can win there — it won’t be easy, given that Wisconsin is 10-1 in the Kohl Center this season, with the only loss coming to then-No. 9 Tennessee in early November — then the roll likely will continue. Following Wisconsin, MSU has 3 of the next 4 in the Breslin Center, and between now and Feb. 17, its 3 road trips are at Minnesota, Penn State and Michigan, 3 teams that are a combined 8-16 in the Big Ten.
But that’s only if the Spartans have, in fact, located some measure of consistency after a rocky start that saw them hovering just a few games above .500 through the first 16 games of the season, with a Big Ten record that on Jan. 11 that was only 1-4. What was wrong? Well, a lot. Following a 14-point loss at Northwestern on Jan. 7, an exasperated Izzo lamented the Spartans’ lack of hustle and toughness, leaving the Hall of Fame coach mystified and searching for answers. The analytics, like offensive efficiency, shot selection, etc., don’t matter when you’re not getting the basics out of your players. And Izzo didn’t think he was getting all he needed.
“You can’t analyze a heart, you can’t analyze toughness, you can’t analyze what you see in a guy’s eyes when he comes into a game, in a huddle — are you nervous, not nervous,” Izzo said a day after the loss. “… Give me a tough guy who can play over the analytics.”
The message might be starting to sink in. Michigan State’s 61-59 victory at Maryland on Sunday wasn’t a masterpiece, as the Spartans scored only 17 2nd-half points, but they ground out a victory, showing a maturity and sense of urgency that the Spartans had previously lacked. The story feels eerily similar to a season ago, when MSU was only 14-9 overall (and 6-6 in the B1G) following a stretch in which it had lost 3 of 4, culminating in a 61-55 loss to Rutgers in Madison Square Garden Feb. 4, when the Spartans shot less than 35% from the field, including only 4-of-21 from 3-point range.
But the Spartans rallied late, winning 5 of their last 7 games to earn a 4th-seed and double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Then, as an NCAA Tournament 7 seed, they beat USC in Round 1, then upset Marquette 2 days later, becoming the B1G’s only team to advance to the Sweet 16.
What about this year? It’s far from a sure thing that Michigan State earns a berth, although the numbers suggest it will, as the Spartans have a Net Ranking of 21, thanks in large part to the willingness to play quality opponents and their 4 wins in Quads 1 and 2. But in a Big Ten that feels open, particularly after Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois at the top, perhaps Michigan State could be the next man up. Or even jump fully into the conversation with the trio.
The Spartans have pieces, like a backcourt that stacks up with any in the Big Ten and many in the country, with AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker, the later of whom seems capable of nuking about any opponent at any moment. But veteran forward Malik Hall has been an enigma, really good one game, then really absent the next. And MSU’s post play has been erratic, particularly on the defensive end, a major no-no in current-day Big Ten basketball.
But Izzo’s found the answers before — MSU has qualified for an NCAA Tournament in every season it’s been held since 1998 — and is seemingly doing so again now. History tells us this: No one will want to face the Spartans come March.