2010 NCAA tournament: Tom Izzo, Michigan State have chance to put season back on track

The road to Indianapolis is paved with dramatic snapshots.
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

SPOKANE, WASH. -- Among the latest to jab Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo about his team's turbulent season was a certain Spokane resident who was overjoyed that the Spartans were sent west for the NCAA tournament.

"Could you just do me one favor?" Jud Heathcote, the former longtime Michigan State coach, told Izzo in a phone conversation. "Do you mind if you could bring your whole team out there?"

The joke resonated with Izzo, who continues to search for answers during an atypical 15th season at Michigan State. The Spartans (25-8) have been dubbed Team Dysfunction. Leadership and chemistry questions dogged them all season. One of the few reasons many have yet to jump from the bandwagon is because of the presence of a coach who usually exhibits a steadying hand this time of year.

But this season has challenged Izzo, who has led the Spartans to five Final Four appearances, including last season's national title game, with many of the same players who hiccupped through this season. Chemistry and leadership changed from last season, and although Michigan State shared the Big Ten regular season title, Izzo said there has been a "little more road kill" than in other seasons.

Some of the problems resembled issues that emerged in other seasons, but the limelight on players is brighter and Izzo has chosen to handle things publicly more than he has in the past.

"What's everyone on talk radio think?" said Izzo, who led the Spartans to the 2000 national title, "that we have 14 different people on a team from different cultures, different areas, different ages, different everything, and everything's going to be as smooth as silk all the time?"

In late December, Izzo withheld Kalin Lucas, a first-team all-Big Ten point guard, from a practice for what was called "leadership issues." He suspended Korie Lucious from playing in the Feb. 13 game against Penn State for missing class.

Guard Durrell Summers did not play in the second half of a Feb. 9 loss to Purdue and was benched for the latter stages of the Big Ten Conference tournament quarterfinal loss to Minnesota. Izzo also suspended guard Chris Allen, who has improved significantly during the season, for the Minnesota game for not being a good teammate.

Izzo has said most of the issues this season involved some players needing to be better teammates, needing to care about every person on the team the same way. Izzo has tried to push different and several buttons all season. And he has said he has wavered on some of his attempts to improve the chemistry or leadership.

"We want to change everything about a player," Izzo said, "from his strength to his jump shot to his passing ability to his defense to his body. And yet we just say, 'His personality, let's leave it alone.' I'm just not wired that way."

But last week he read an article on star-crossed Allen Iverson and reached a conclusion: Every move Izzo made this season was good; he has no regrets.

"Do we have things that are not being done the right way in my mind?" Izzo said. "Yes we do. That's why I have done what I have done."

Izzo said earlier in the week that he was not completely comfortable with his team heading into the NCAA tournament because of leadership questions. But he said Saturday that he has been encouraged by his team's play of late, including in Friday's victory over New Mexico State.

Michigan State forward Draymond Green said the Spartans are past the point of dwelling on the issues that plagued the season, adding, "We have pretty much wiped our slate clean of everything that went on in the regular season. We're working together as a team now. Coaches, players, managers, everyone -- because we all know that one loss and you are done for the year. No more frustration for anyone."

As forward Raymar Morgan said, "It's pretty much a new season."

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