Beyond the Bison: College

Julian Dorey, Senior Writer

Tom Izzo coaches at an academic institution.

Twenty years into his tenure and in the midst of yet another run to the Final Four (his seventh appearance), it might finally be time for Michigan State to give him dual status as “Professor Tom Izzo.”

I wrote it during last year’s tournament—and I’ll write it again this year: Tom Izzo is as good as it gets. He refines his machine year-in-year-out—turning over rosters that have no business competing into the late stages of March in the first place.

This year will undoubtedly go down as his greatest coaching accomplishment to date. After losing stars Gary Harris and Adreian Payne to the NBA draft last June, this year’s Spartans had little-to-no experience or leadership—and seemingly the lowest collective talent of any team Izzo has ever coached. Suddenly, previous role players like Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine were asked to be the veteran “stars” of a depleted 2014-2015 roster—and even a guy like Branden Dawson had to step out of his background stat-sheet-stuffer role to be at the forefront of this year’s squad.

It didn’t start well. The team limped out to a 13-7 start—including an embarrassing loss at home to Texas Southern. It looked like a bridge season for Izzo (who was without any major new recruits) and an NCAA tournament berth looked shaky at best.

Shame on me (and all of us) for not realizing that Izzo had the country right where he wanted them. In mid-February, “the misfits” started to find their footing. Besides a tight loss against Minnesota and two other close defeats at the hands of powerhouse Wisconsin (also in the Final Four this weekend), “Sparty” started to look a bit more like, well, Izzo’s Sparty.

They closed the season with an 8-3 spurt (all in Conference play) and a 23-11 final record. Their second-half push was enough to put them into a decent 7-seed—but nowhere near the “contention” conversations that Izzo has become used to every March.

Then, bang. A convincing defeat of Georgia and a wire-to-wire effort to knock off Top-5 team Virginia in the round of 32 lit the Izzo-March Madness fire out of nowhere. Trice and Valentine became household names overnight—and the coy Izzo simply remarked that his team “might have a chance to make a little run.”

Oh, don’t be shy, Tom. Five days later, Izzo took down a solid Oklahoma team before dispatching his old rival Rick Pitino, and his fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals en route to another Final Four appearance.

Michigan State now heads into the Final weekend with three teams (Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Duke) who spent just about the entire year in the Top-10, three teams who all earned one-seeds in the tournament, three teams with at least one first team All-American (Willie Cauley-Stein from Kentucky, Frank Kaminsky from Wisconsin, and Jahlil Okafor from Duke), three teams who have at least one if not multiple 2015 lottery picks (Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who are expected to be the top two selections in the upcoming draft), and one team (Kentucky) who has played 38 games this season without seeing defeat.

What does Izzo’s squad have?

Three things: Heart, leadership, and Izzo.

The 2015 Spartans’ run to the Final Four has been a shock in and of itself. Now the odds are stacked even more against them. There will be no running and hiding from the biggest, baddest wolves left in the pack.

But old Tommy knows that. After all, it’s his world—and we’re just living in it.

A quick exit this weekend won’t at all mar Izzo’s greatest coaching job in his Hall-of-Fame career—but another surprise will only add to his legend.

A win over the greatest college coach of all-time, Mike Krzyzewski, is certainly a fitting place to start.

Coach K vs. Izzo. The two best coaches in college basketball. Saturday, April 4. 6 o’clock. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Can Izzo and Sparty do it again?

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