The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does Tom Izzo still burn to win? Ask the whiteboard he broke vs. USC.

Tom Izzo argues his case during Friday's win over USC. At 68, he's seeking a trip to his ninth Final Four. (Michael Conroy/AP)
6 min

COLUMBUS, Ohio — March Madness doesn’t get stamped as official anymore until the familiar face of Tom Izzo takes on a look so tormented that you worry for his well-being. That moment came Friday with 8:29 left in the first half against Southern California. A brief but poignant ceremony should have followed.

The Trojans got a layup off an inbounds pass, an unspeakable yet scream-able horror for a coach who fancies defense, and so the long-standing Michigan State coach sat down and had his head spin maybe all the way around with a face telling of inner tumult and threatening to emit steam.

He would have other moments in the 72-62 opening win for these good-not-great seventh-seeded Spartans, including a broken whiteboard and a joke about once maybe having broken one over Draymond Green, all of which meant Izzo, 68, is back for a record 25th consecutive time, dispensing wisdom while epitomizing how coaches tilt toward control freakishness and danger addiction.

The danger Izzo saw on TV on Thursday in Virginia colors.

“Hell, yes, it does [get addictive],” he said of the danger of ouster. “I mean, you saw a team last night that led the whole game. And good players. And good kids. And make mistakes that you say: ‘How can you make that? You played in a Final Four. You did this and that.’ Great coach. Not a good coach. Great coach. And all of a sudden something happens because, you know, you just don’t know how people respond. Sometimes the coach makes a mistake, and I’ve done that. … And sometimes a player does.”

So he told of his late timeout of control-freakishness amid danger addiction — check the timeouts left, check the arrow — and said: “So I felt today that everybody — coaches, players — were all in it together. And is it because we fear? I hope so. I fear my job every day. That’s what makes me work. Fear of being in the NCAA tournament and losing? That’s okay. You can’t be nervous at this time, what these guys have been through. If fear makes you nervous, probably not going to win anyway.”

It’s a tournament career so rich in the familiarity of danger that Virginia’s wreck and Kihei Clark’s gaffe just add another warning to the pile. It’s so decorated that it has eight Final Fours. It’s so layered that he will fish something out of memory and you realize the memory is age 13: the buzzer-beater over Maryland in Spokane, Wash. — Green romping up the court, kicking over to Korie Lucious; Lucious dribbling once to his left, letting fly … paired with learning that day that Northern Iowa had pruned out No. 1 seed Kansas over in Oklahoma City.

It’s so rich in travel that Izzo’s teams have opened these tournaments in Hartford (Conn.), Milwaukee, Cleveland, Memphis, Washington, Tampa, Seattle, Worcester (Mass.), Dayton (Ohio), Winston-Salem (N.C.), Denver, Minneapolis, Spokane, Tampa again, Columbus, Auburn Hills (Mich.), Spokane again, Charlotte, St. Louis, Tulsa, Detroit, Des Moines, West Lafayette (Ind.), Greenville (S.C.) and Columbus again.

Many a coach out there dreams of making just one opening Thursday or Friday.

Izzo knows more than enough to prefer Friday to Thursday.

“For the most part, I’ve always wanted to play on the Friday,” he said. “I didn’t care where. I just wanted to play on the Friday. It wasn’t for an extra day of prep.” It was for spotting the upsets and then showing them to the players and saying, he said, “See guys, I told you.”

That helps with comprehension, he said, “And that way, it builds the sense of urgency.”

So off they went again with their urgency Friday, and Izzo wound up thinking his 20-12 team “got our mojo back,” and midway through a good second half of energy and defense, something happened like the team yielding three rebounds in a row or something, and the whiteboard paid, and Izzo wound up saying: “It felt damned good. How’s that? Last time I probably broke a good one like that was over Draymond Green, and that felt good.” Then he quipped he had been writing gently on the thing when it broke, and so: “Ridiculous. They’ve got to build a better product if you ask me.”

And once he got mad at exemplary guard Tyson Walker, which almost never happens but happened after Walker’s reach-in foul after an Izzo lecture had prohibited reach-in fouls, and then Walker got mad at Izzo back, and then Malik Hall started telling Walker to quiet down, and then Izzo said he doesn’t mind such dialogue, and all looked swell with Michigan State.

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And then Michigan State gathered a 66-51 lead with 4:21 left off some great defensive energy with Hall’s gorgeous baby hook in the mix, and Izzo called that hook “pretty” as it was, but then came a sequence of the kind of thing so dangerous that no coach can resist trying to avoid it.

It happened after Southern California began fouling.

With 1:46 left, A.J. Hoggard front-rimmed the front end of a one-and-one.

With 1:24 left, Hoggard (81 percent on the year) missed a front end a second time.

With 1:13 left, Mady Sissoko had a front end rattle out.

With 1:06 left, Joey Hauser (87 percent on the year) had a first free throw roll through to the backboard and then off.

Granted a second free throw by the rules, mercifully, Hauser connected, and the pro-Spartans crowd let out a cheer of fine sarcasm.

Had the Trojans made a habit of scoring through this, unthinkable peril could have boiled.

“Now, free throw shooting,” Izzo said, and turned to Walker on the interview dais, “go ahead, you comment on it.”

“It was a bad day,” Walker said.

“Well said,” Izzo said.

It was 15 for 25 technically, a number that might throb much worse should it echo Sunday against Marquette, but Izzo got to talk in the hopeless way coaches talk to themselves. “You know, I always live in the past, and I always look forward to the future, and these damned players, they just live in the moment, and sometimes it drives me up the wall,” he said. “I’m going to steal a page out of their book, and today I’m going to live in the moment.

“So in the moment, I’m not even worried about all those missed free throws.

“In the moment.”