COLUMBUS, Ohio — This was March of 1998. There was a new musical going well on Broadway called The Lion King and a new book out with a character named Harry Potter. In the NBA, Michael Jordan was in his last dance with the Chicago Bulls. College football spring practice was going on, including at Michigan with a quarterback named Tom Brady.
And in college basketball, a coach at Michigan State made his first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Went to the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina.
Twenty-five years later, Tom Izzo still knows how, fractured whiteboards and all.
It’s March and the Spartans are on the move again, at least for two more days. The 72-62 win over USC Friday was a reminder of the remarkable durability of the Izzo era. There have been 25 NCAA tournaments since 1998. Michigan State has played in them all. No coach has ever had a streak like that, from Mike Krzyzewski to John Wooden.
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There have been times recently when Izzo has wondered if the Spartans world — players, fans, media — have taken that for granted. He has surmised that maybe even he started taking it for granted. “I’m not taking too much for granted anymore,” he said Friday. “It’s too crazy of a world.”
This from the coach at the school where three students were killed in a campus shooting in February.
No, as he reminded Friday, “I’m not on the 18th hole.”
There is still success in his program. Still achievement. Still fire. Miffed Friday by something on the court, he snapped a whiteboard in half as if it a dead tree branch. “Felt damn good,” he said later. He can still get the players to buy what he is selling; kids who weren’t even born the last time Michigan State was not in the tournament.
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A coach in 25 consecutive versions of March Madness? “It’s super, super wild man,” said Spartan freshman Tre Holloman. “I’m just trying to honor him and be better and trying to do whatever the team needs me to do to win.”
This was Izzo’s 77th NCAA tournament game. He has won 54 of them, enough to get to eight Final Fours. His 2000 national championship remains the last for the Big Ten. It would be asking a lot to believe this team could get him back. The Spartans are unranked with a 20-12 record and seeded No. 7 in the region. But one of the givens of March is that Michigan State is often up to something.
This first step was so Izzoish, settled by the honest labor of defense. The Spartans’ plan was to keep a firm grip on USC’s renowned backcourt of Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, and the two ended up a combined 7-for-22 shooting. Even the Trojans appreciated what had shackled them. “Just team defense, jumping to the ball, being on all the gaps pretty much,” Ellis said.
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Afterward Izzo would mention, “We all gotta look in the mirror and say, are doing the things that we need to do to really compete at this level and compete during this time of the year? And it was rewarding to hear the guys at halftime talking about we’ve got to get back to our defense.”
Izzo turned 68 in January and it has not been the easiest season. The Spartans could be on again, off again in an unforgiving Big Ten. And then there was the horror of the shooting that hit a green-blooded Michigan State man such as Izzo in the heart. He was in tears on the bench when the Spartans won their first home game after the tragedy.
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Now it is March, the month he and his program live for. Marquette will be next on Sunday, and if the Spartans find a way there, Izzo would be in his 15th Sweet 16. But for now, let the Izzoims from this week roll — born of wisdom and experience and his own humor . . .
“I don’t think it’s the most talented team I’ve had. But I do think for the most part it’s been a pretty connected team and that’s what we’ve tried to get back, is a little more of that connectiveness that gets you through.”
“My son is a senior. He doesn’t play. I sleep on the couch when I go home because my wife’s mad at me.”
“I do like my team. And I’m a half-empty glass guy, as we all know. There’s no huggy bear.”
“Each team, you’ve got to continuously talk about the sense of urgency, the one-and-done, until you go through it. A lot of times it doesn’t hit home.”
“In ’09 we played North Carolina at the beginning of the year. We got beat by 25. We played them in the championship game. We got beat by 22. I would have rather played the Pistons in Detroit than North Carolina.
“When I say I feel confident, if you think I sleep nights you’re crazy. I’m not that confident.”
“I worry a little bit. I think we beat the hell out of our league this year, each other. That can make you stronger or wear you down. But I like the position that some of these Big Ten teams are in. Purdue is awfully good and a one-day prep figuring out how to guard Edey, it’s going to take more than John Wooden coming back.”
“At the end of the day I think we make things so complex. That’s why I’m a big football fan. No matter what you do in football — they talk about the new passing and the RPOs and the this and that — and you know what? You’ve got to be able to block and tackle. At the end of the day you’ve got to be able to defend and rebound in ours and that leads to running. And that’s our mantra.”
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By the way, Michigan State outscored USC 8-0 in fast break points, but the Spartans also had a 32-20 edge in points in the paint. The only thing to regret were the six consecutive missed free throws late in the game that left the door ajar for the Trojans.
About the annual talk of the Big Ten not winning a national championship since Michigan State 23 years ago, Izzo gave several possible reasons why. Then got to the bottom line. “We haven’t done it. So we’ve got to take our lumps on that and try to do something about it.”
Direct and straight to the point, just the way he likes his teams. Still, after all these years, with more than just the 18th hole left to play.