DES MOINES — Twenty-one bustling Marches ago, Tom Izzo’s third Michigan State team started off 4-3, though he recollects it as 5-4 because sometimes 4-3 can feel dreary enough to seem like 5-4.
It had lost early on to Illinois Chicago, Temple and Detroit Mercy, and, he said Wednesday, “I think they were talking about firing me seriously.”
Michigan State — Michigan State! — had not reached the Sweet 16 in the eight years preceding 1998. Izzo, its former longtime assistant, was 43 years old and 0-0 in the big bracket as a head coach as his great March habit began, as a No. 4 seed, in Hartford, Conn.
By now, if Izzo’s No. 2 seed Michigan State (29-6) can win here Saturday, following up its thorny 76-65 elusion of No. 15 seed Bradley on Thursday, his NCAA tournament win total would reach 50 (No. 5 all-time). His best player, Cassius Winston, was 12 days old when Izzo first coached in the tournament March 12, 1998. Eight of his players weren’t born. The other eight were 2½ years old or less.
He’s as much a part of the American March as St. Patrick’s Day or final bursts of cold. He’s part of the landscape, always somewhere on a bracket, 22 years in a row, having held down every seed from 1 to 10 except 8, having reached seven Final Fours from seeds Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 7.
“I love March,” Izzo said Wednesday. “I love the tournament. I love the way it goes. I love playing in games, and I love watching other games.”
He might continue loving it even after Thursday, when Michigan State trailed 55-54 with seven minutes left, when Izzo peppered the game with some of his trademark harangues and when Bradley, which had climbed from 0-5 to 9-9 in the Missouri Valley, then won the conference tournament, forged the unthinkable. It outrebounded Michigan State 19-13 in the first half.
Michigan State outrebounded Bradley 23-7 in the second, a reality Izzo said happened through a halftime “love fest” during which, “We said, ‘Hey guys, it’s okay if we get outrebounded by another team,’ and we said: ‘That’s okay. But if we could do a better job that would be great because then we could win.’ That’s what we did.”
He probably kidded.
Way back last century in the first of these 22 years running, Izzo and the Spartans had just lost to Minnesota right off the bat at the Big Ten tournament. Big Ten player of the year Mateen Cleaves had shot 2 for 18. The 20-7 Spartans faced a knotty little draw in the East Region, starting with, oh no, Eastern Michigan and, oh really, no, Princeton.
Eastern Michigan had Earl Boykins, the marvel whose height (5-foot-5) didn’t seem to matter much, and Derrick Dial who, like Boykins, would reach the NBA. Michigan State had to wait all the way till Thursday night to play. The duo would combine for 47 points. Cleaves would tell Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press: “We wouldn’t have been able to go home had we lost this game. I know I couldn’t have gone home to Flint.”
Cleaves picked up two early fouls. Izzo removed him. Eastern Michigan zoomed ahead 16-7. Izzo reinstated him and, according to Sharp, hollered, “Don’t do anything stupid!” Michigan State prevailed, 83-71, and Izzo was underway as a March mainstay. He would reach the Final Four in 1999, win the championship in 2000, reach the Final Four in 2001.
First, though, he would have to get through Princeton, whose tournament legacy included frightening Georgetown (1989) and banishing UCLA (1996). “We won that and had to play Princeton, and we started kind of what I do now [to prepare the team]: 20-minute segments. Get up, 20-minute segments on Princeton, have breakfast, another 20 minutes on Princeton,” Izzo said Wednesday. “I understood the attention span, and that was pre-Twitter. Now we have four-minute meetings, and it’s changed a little bit since Twitter has evolved.”
So in a test of the human memory 21 years on, Izzo has this: Princeton, winner of 20 in a row, served the nation as a leading practitioner of the backdoor play. Michigan State, with 6-8 Antonio Smith the cog on defense, allowed Princeton one successful backdoor play. And Michigan State got one of its own. It went to Charlie Bell, late in the first half. It’s Izzo’s prevailing memory of the second of his 69 NCAA tournament games.
“Princeton was notorious for backdoor plays, and we ran one on them and found a way to beat them, and then went down [to the Sweet 16] and North Carolina took care of us,” Izzo said.
By now, he has the added role of March sage. He has seen tournament excitement have the effect of improving teams. He has lost a No. 15-No. 2 game to Middle Tennessee (in 2016) and can recite the statistics to assert that Michigan State didn’t overlook that game, because “I never forget where I came from” — Iron Mountain, Mich. — “and never forget these tragic losses but never forget those exhilarating wins, either. It’s all just part of the deal.”
He said: “I’m starting to realize more and more, you know, as we all get older, we’re in this weird profession where our clientele are always 17 to 22. So I think it helps to have other people telling them, you know? I’ve been blessed at our place. We’ve been at one-and-done mode for about three weeks now, when you think about it. We had to win so many games to win the Big Ten championship, and then Magic [Johnson] coming back to Steve Smith, and I would always ask them to talk to our guys. Then I would ask the Tum Tums [Nairn], Jaren Jacksons and Miles [Bridges] did a good job calling guys and telling them how to deal with those pressures.”
Against Minnesota on Saturday, Izzo will coach NCAA tournament game No. 70. And in the usual, nutty pattern of this whole drill at American universities, he once had been a two-time NIT coach with three early third-year losses that, in memory, felt like four.