The day after Michigan State lost to Penn State in the Palestra in early January, Tom Izzo got a phone call from Villanova Coach Jay Wright.
“Did you really start four freshmen in the Palestra?” Wright asked. “What were you thinking?”
“It was the ghosts,” Izzo said. “I don’t know what I was thinking playing there.”
Izzo laughed as he re-told the story Friday morning, eating a bagel before he went on his morning walk with team consultant Brian Gregory. It was starting to snow outside, but Izzo, who grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hardly noticed. He was dressed in a white-and-green Michigan State windbreaker and ready to take on a day that would include his team’s Big Ten quarterfinal against Minnesota — a game his team would lose, 63-58, in large part because it made just six of 30 three-point attempts.
Even so, the Spartans, at 19-14, are a virtual lock to land their 20th consecutive NCAA tournament bid. On Thursday, they crushed Penn State, 78-51 — proving to Izzo that the loss in the Palestra had been as much about the Nittany Lions playing over their head as about any of the other things that he often beats himself up over.
“I really felt like I messed my team up with the schedule this year,” he said. “I’ve always played anyone, anywhere, and I think the kids enjoy it and it makes us better. But this year, I overdid it with the travel. We were in Hawaii and then straight to New York, came home for three days and played two games, then left the next day to play three more in the Bahamas.
“We didn’t have any practice time. We’ve got four good freshmen, but what do they need more than anything that time of year? Practice. Then we started to get hurt, and for a while there, we were a mess.”
He paused and smiled.
“Really frustrating year in a lot of ways,” he said. “But also fun. I had to do some things I haven’t done in the past, kind of push myself out of my normal comfort zone. That’s been fun.”
His team has battled injuries all season, starting with his two most experienced big men, Gavin Schilling and graduate transfer Ben Carter, suffering knee injuries in the preseason. Then stud freshman Miles Bridges missed seven games because of an ankle issue, and then senior guard Eron Harris went down five games ago because of a season-ending knee injury.
“This was supposed to be his year,” Izzo said. “That one was tough to take.”
Through all the injuries and scheduling issues and ghosts, Izzo somehow has kept the Spartans on track to do their best work in March — as they almost always do. A year ago, after winning the Big Ten tournament for the third time in five years (Michigan State is the only school to reach at least the quarterfinals in each of the tournament’s 20 years), the Spartans were stunned in the first round of the NCAA tournament by 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State.
“Outplayed and outcoached,” said Izzo, who was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame two weeks later. “If the voters had seen that game, they might have thought twice about picking me.”
Izzo has always been blessed with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Several years ago before Michigan State played Duke in the NCAA tournament, Izzo told the media that his then 10-year-old son Steven was a Duke fan.
“I told Mike [Krzyzewski] that the least he can do is give him a scholarship,” Izzo said. “I mean, my own son and he might be rooting against me?”
Steven Izzo is now 15, and there is no doubt where his loyalty lies these days.
“Yeah, but I still wouldn’t mind that scholarship,” Izzo said, laughing.
Izzo, 62, shows no signs of being ready to walk away anytime soon. His legacy is completely secure: a national title in 2000, seven Final Four appearances, five Big Ten tournament titles and 543 career wins.
None of that is on Izzo’s mind once the season begins.
“What is amazing about him is how much he wants this team to get to play in the [NCAA] tournament,” said Gregory, who came back to Michigan State as a consultant this season after head coaching stints at Dayton and Georgia Tech. “He’s not worried about the streak; he’s worried about wanting these guys to feel good about themselves when the season’s over.”
After they were routed, 80-63, at Purdue on Feb. 18, the Spartans dropped to 8-6 in the Big Ten and 16-11 overall. The internet was rife with stories about whether this might be the year the Michigan State’s NCAA streak ended. Only Kansas — dating from 1990 — and Duke — dating from 1996 — have longer streaks.
Five days after the Purdue loss, at his team’s pregame meal before playing Nebraska, Izzo decided to bring it up to his players.
“I never talk about stuff like that,” he said. “Usually at a pregame meal I get up, say a few words about the game and the opponent, and that’s it. That day, though, I said, ‘Fellas, let’s talk a little here. I know you’re thinking about it and hearing about it because I hear about it every day. Let’s just point right at that white elephant over there in the corner. Then, let’s just go out and play this game and, after that, the next game.’”
Michigan State won that night and then won over Wisconsin three days later — all but clinching another NCAA bid for the Spartans. Still, Izzo heard talk, notably on the Big Ten Network, that perhaps his team was still on the bubble.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “Have you looked at our schedule? We played the toughest nonconference schedule in the country. We played Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke in November. Like I said, maybe I overdid it, but we should get some credit for playing those teams.”
They will get the credit Sunday evening. Even so, as he stalked down the hall Thursday afternoon after the rout of Penn State — Izzo never walks, he stalks — he was shouting for anyone listening to hear, “Are we still on the bubble now?”
The intensity is very much still there. It was there Friday when Izzo kept up a running harangue directed at all three officials, going nose to nose with Gene Steratore at one point.
The loss was just a detour, not an ending. This is almost always Tom Izzo’s month. Even after Friday’s defeat, he intends to make the most of it.