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Brian Burnsed | | April 3, 2015

The Spartan Way

Champ. Countdown: Tom Izzo interview

As winter gives way to spring and the Midwest begins to thaw, watch a Michigan State basketball game. Signs and shirts bear a clever slogan that has grown so omnipresent it’s already stale:

“January, February, Izzo, April, May.”

But why, really, is the man who has been at the helm of the Spartans for two decades synonymous with March? How has he led the Spartans to seven of the past 17 Final Fours, often when Michigan State was an afterthought entering the tournament? (The last four Spartans teams that reached the Final Four have been, on average, a No. 5 seed). How did this seventh-seeded Spartans team, which lost seven of its first 20 contests, push top-seed Wisconsin to overtime in the Big Ten Tournament final and propel itself to Indianapolis for a Final Four showdown with Duke and its NBA-ready stars?

There’s no trick, no magic: Izzo doesn’t simply flip a switch when he flips his calendar. No, the consistent late-season success is born of a long, grating process. It’s the result of seeds Izzo and his staff plant in his players that take a season, often several, to truly blossom.

Those seeds are ingrained in stars and role players alike. Junior transfer Bryn Forbes arrived at Michigan State this season with a weapon in hand -- he shot nearly 44 percent from distance this season -- but also as a defensive liability. He recalls a few late nights this winter in East Lansing, Michigan, when Izzo pulled him and three other guards onto a court for an hour and a half at a time, pushing them through rigorous defensive drills.

Forbes cites those intimate late-night sessions, sweating and straining with his fellow guards, the incessant conversations about defensive technique and positioning, for the strides he has made on that end and for the increased playing time he has received as the tournament has worn on.

“I think that’s the only reason we’re here,” he said. “[Coach] never backs down. It’s intense every day.”

Freshman forward Marvin Clark has steadily seen his responsibilities -- be a physical defender and efficient scorer around the basket -- increase as the season has worn on. Izzo, he said, has helped him adapt to the frantic pace of the college game by chiding him throughout every practice. It’s not Izzo’s sharp tongue Clark has come to fear; it’s silence. And Izzo has refused to stop applying pressure to his young forward.

“He wouldn’t stay on me if he didn’t care about me,” Clark said. “If he didn’t see anything in me, he wouldn’t get on me and expect the best out of me.”

Clark is only playing 11 minutes per game, but the tough love he receives now will eventually bear fruit -- junior forward Matt Costello exemplifies what can happen with time. He said Izzo chided him every day through his first two seasons. Seemingly every utterance was a critique, every conversation driven by disapproval. Then, this year, Costello hardened and accepted a larger role -- his scoring and rebounding figures have nearly doubled despite persistent knee problems.

  Tom Izzo and his players have a special bond, formed and developed from before the season even started.
After two years of being told what he was doing wrong, Costello has been caught off guard this season when Izzo frequently tells him what he’s doing right. The coach tore his 6-foot-9 forward down, and has slowly started to build a stronger version back up, one unexpected “good job” at a time.

“It’s weird to hear [the praise],” Costello said. “Most of the time he’s trying to challenge you, but now he’s supporting you once you see you have that confidence yourself.”

Freshman guard Lourawls Nairn Jr. said he shot seemingly every time he came down the court in high school -- scoring in bunches -- then he arrived at Michigan State and Izzo sat him down and explained that his role would be different. He would have to wait his turn. Nairn averaged just shy of 20 minutes per game this season, a healthy dose of playing time for a freshman, but mustered only 2.2 points per contest. His job hasn’t been to put the ball in the basket, and thanks to that early conversation, he hasn’t soured. Instead, he learned to play his role, helping his team thrive.

“If you want to become a better man, you need to be around Coach Izzo,” Narirn said. 

Individual improvements like those are what cause the Spartans to peak in March. There are no tricks, no shortcuts. Assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said he doesn’t see players have any “a-ha” moments along the way. Instead, there are hundreds of smaller lessons, their benefits manifesting in March.

Most of the talent in the Final Four rests with the three other teams that made it to Indianapolis -- Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky is the Associated Press Player of the Year, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is projected by some to be the top pick in next year’s NBA draft and Kentucky’s wealth of pro-caliber talent extends beyond even its starting five -- so Izzo spent as much time as he could with his players this season on the court or in his office or in his home or on car rides. Through all of those interactions, he broke them down only to build them up so that, when March arrived, they were a different team than the one that sputtered in the fall.

When Okafor and Duke take the court against the Spartans on Saturday, they won’t be facing the same team they beat by 10 in November.

They will be facing Costello, whose confidence has grown due to those hard-earned “good jobs.” They will be facing Clark who, thanks to a budding relationship with Izzo, has grown comfortable in his 225-pound frame. They will be facing Forbes, whose defense has improved thanks to those cold, late nights in East Lansing, when the shooter was molded into something more, one drop of sweat at a time.

“We don't have all the All-Americans,” Izzo said. “We're trying to make them.”


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