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Mike Lopresti | | November 4, 2021

Facing unusually modest expectations for Michigan State, here's Tom Izzo's strategy for 2021

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We’ve seen the teams at the top of the Big Ten predictions for this season: Michigan . . . Purdue . . . Illinois . . . Ohio State . . . Maryland . . .

Notice a name missing? Hint: Think green.

Yep, Michigan State. Nowhere to be found in the pre-season top 25 polls. Come the annual Champions Classic next week — where the blood runs blue — Kansas, Duke and Kentucky will all show up as top-10 teams. The Spartans are down with the also received votes. What in the name of Tom Izzo is going on?

“It’s a little different looking up at some of the Big Ten. We’re usually looking down on people,” Izzo was saying the other day. “But rightfully so, we haven’t earned our stripes yet. We’ve got some things to prove.”

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So how is that for a Hall of Fame coach, riding back in economy class with the commoners?

“It sucks.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. But Izzo also wants to spin it another way.

“It’s really OK once in a while. I don’t want to have a steady diet of it (but) I think it brings humility and it brings understanding. It kind of reinforces in your own mind, `why did we get where we are, what happened, what did we do?’ Some things aren’t all bad.”

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Michigan State was one of the Big Ten’s many quick hooks from the 2021 tournament, blowing a 14-point lead in an overtime First Four loss to UCLA, who you might recall ended up playing on a while. The Spartans labored through the season with a 15-13 record and a most uncharacteristic 9-11 losing mark in Big Ten play. Three of the top four scorers are gone from that bunch. Hence, the unusually low spot down the preseason conference food chain.

But new faces, especially at guard, are designed to fix some of what ailed Michigan State. There are really no big marquee stars right now in East Lansing. Eleven players were named to the preseason all-Big Ten team and none of them are Spartans. Not a league player of the year candidate on the roster. Izzo more or less shrugs about that. “There’s been a lot of years I didn’t have a candidate and we went to the Final Four. Players of the year don’t win championships, they help teams win championships.” Plus, the challenge has given Izzo fresh purpose, which can be useful for a coach turning 67 in a couple of months.

“I guess all the off-seasons seem shorter as you get older, but this one seemed longer because I wanted to get back and get the bad taste out of my mouth the way the last game ended,” he said. “That game ended just about the way the second half of the season went. We did enough to be 14 points up on a team that went to the Final Four, just like we won some games and beat three top-5 teams, but couldn’t consistently be at that level.

“I think when you’re picked lower you readjust yourself. You figure out what you’ve got to do to do a better job. For me, I’ve got to put guys in a better place to be successful, not just plug them in.”

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All he needs to do is gaze around the coaching landscape to understand it is getting late in his career. Roy Williams gone, Lon Kruger gone, Mike Krzyzewski taking a final victory lap. His contemporaries are starting to disappear.

“It could be two years, it could be 10 years. I always said when I quit taking red-eyes it’s time to hang it up,” he said. “I feel actually better than I’ve felt. And I think having to reassess yourself when you have a year that doesn’t go well is good. We have to get back to where defense matters, our running game matters, rebounding matters. If we do all those things, I’m going to coach for a lot more years. I feel the new energy.

“It’s not only how you feel but how you feel about the game and how you feel about going to work every day.”

It’s not always easy for Izzo in 2021. He detests the scourge of social media, worries how the transfer portal has turned college basketball into a frenetic bus station of coming and going, and mourns the impatient age when the process of actually building a team and program is often lost in the bustle. “It’s not even in the dictionary anymore. It’s like accountability. Or winning sometimes,” he said.

But the game is still vibrant to him, as is always the chance for something new. Michigan State will play at Butler this season, fulfilling Izzo’s career-long goal of coaching a game in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Just like he wanted to play in the Palestra, and on an aircraft carrier. He did, too. The results weren’t that much fun, though.

“It seems like every time I go play somewhere that’s on a bucket list, I lose,” he said. “I don’t have many bucket list things left. When you’ve been in it a hundred years, there’s only so many places you haven’t played.” But he wouldn’t mind scheduling a Michigan State game in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one day. That’s home.

Something else he wants: The Spartans restored to the elite.

“That’s what it’s about here, and that’s what we’re going to keep it about,” he said. “(Recruits) didn’t come here to say let’s go finish fifth. I don’t know where they do those battle cries.

“I’d rather the pressure. The program has pressure. That’s good pressure. That’s a labor of love for a long period of time, to earn the fact to have the pressure. We’ve earned that so now we have to live with it.”

Indeed, the quest for redemption can keep a coach young. So long as he doesn’t have to do it too often.

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