EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Don't say it, OK? Don't say Michigan State might be the best team in the Big Ten, or even (oh no!) the country. Just keep talking about Indiana and Michigan and Duke and Miami. Especially Miami. The Hurricanes beat the Spartans in November. They must be better than Michigan State. Yes. Talk about that.
Michigan State doesn't want to hear a word about its awesomeness. Admittedly, this is a big ask, since the Spartans just drilled fourth-ranked Michigan on Tuesday night at the Breslin Center in a game that most likely had a final score. I can't say for sure, because stopped looking at the scoreboard when the Spartans pushed their lead to 4,000.
(I don't want Tom Izzo and his players to hear me, so I'm hiding in the cozy, dark area between parentheses. Grab a beer and join me. What if this wasn't a fluke? What if these Spartans really do deliver Tom Izzo's second national title? In a year with no truly dominant team, who has a better starting five than Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix? Who plays better defense all over the floor? Who combines this level of athleticism with this much toughness? I'm asking: WHO?!?! Wait, that was loud. Sorry.)
"I'm a little confused where we are, but I've been confused all year," Izzo said, after his team improved to 21-4. "I was a little amazed we were 20-4, if I'm honest about it."
Izzo is confused every year. This is part of his charm, and a big part of his greatness. Every season, he goes through the Five Stages of Izzo. He doesn't mean to do it. He can't help himself.
The Five Stages are ....
1. Optimism -- Izzo is optimistic in October and early November. The Spartans are either favorites (meaning they have players who have won big) or underdogs (and Izzo, a short guy from a small town, loves being an underdog), but either way, Izzo says, "I'll tell you what, I like my team." I always feel it is appropriate to nod, even though I know what is coming next.
2. Concern -- This comes after an early-season loss or two, Izzo blames himself for overscheduling, bemoans a lack of practice time and worries about injuries, but says he still likes his team, and the Spartans will be OK, as soon as they get past the brutal schedule, the lack of practice time, and the injuries.
3. Confusion -- This often comes after a great win and a bad loss, back-to-back. Izzo wonders: Why isn't his team consistent? Why doesn't winning doesn't mean enough to some of his players? He is confused, he'll tell you. But he still thinks tomorrow will be OK, except hang on folks, because we're heading into ...
4. The World Is A Terrible Place And Why Are We Even Alive? -- At some point in January or February, Izzo will rant about any and all of the following: toughness; injuries; the Big Ten schedule; the media favoring Michigan; the media favoring the ACC; the media favoring how today's players are coddled; cell phones, text messages, camera phones and any other technology invented since 1987; how recruiting never really got easier for him, despite his success; some random lousy player from an opposing team who somehow played great against Michigan State; leadership; and the depressing reality that Mateen Cleaves ran out of eligibility in 2000. Izzo loves Cleaves, not just because Cleaves was a great player who won the national title, but because together, Cleaves and Izzo willed Michigan State to prominence. Izzo's son's middle name is Mateen.
5. Success -- This comes in March. Nobody in college basketball has gotten his teams to play their best in March like Izzo. A few others have won more, but only a few, and they all had more talent.
You go through a few seasons with Izzo, and you get used to the Stages. Sometimes I turn around in his press conferences and look for a guy in the back of the room holding up a cue card. I figure the card will just say CONFUSION, so Izzo doesn't get accidentally optimistic in January.
The Stages can be exhausting -- he really does seem like a tortured soul sometimes. But see, this is why Izzo will end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame someday. He has high standards, and somehow, some way, he gets his players to reward the faith he has in them. He always rallies the troops, and also himself.
And maybe the best part of this year's Michigan State team is that these guys don't need to be rallied.
"I did very little motivating today," Izzo said. "The walk through and all that, the focus was like lasers."
It helps to have Dawson, a McDonald's All-American who just wants to defend, rebound, pass, and create havoc.
"He is the most unselfish kid on the team," assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said. "He has never talked about shots or wanting to get more shots."
It helps to have Payne, an enigma for two years, who is playing out of position at power forward (he is a natural center) but looking quite comfortable.
It helps when everybody parrots Nix, who parrots Izzo, the rarely seen double-parrot: "Checking is not a skill. It's a will."
This is the kind of team that can pull you back into a much-maligned sport. College basketball has been such a clusterfluffle of a mess lately. Conference realignment, the enormous NCAA tournament and parity have sapped interest in the regular season. The one-and-done trend has made it harder to invest emotionally in teams.
But a night like this, with the Michigan State crowd screaming, two teams in the top 10 playing and a rivalry rolling, was a reminder of what makes college basketball's regular season special. A big regular-season college basketball game combines the hype and volume of a major sporting event with the atmosphere and charm of a big high school game. It was an absolute joy. OK, not so much for Michigan. But the Wolverines will have their shot in Ann Arbor in a few weeks.
How can you not believe in this quote from Nix?
"I feel like when we get on that floor, there is just something that goes through our bodies. We go as one. We don't care who scores. We've got McDonald's All-Americans. We don't even care about that stuff. We just go out and play hard every night."
This is the program Izzo imagined when nobody else did. He was optimistic he could do it. He was concerned he wouldn't. He was confused when other people didn't see it. He had a couple of years when he wondered if it would ever really happen the way he hoped -- this was after he had won a national title, and recruiting was still tough, and it just didn't seem like the Spartans could sustain their status as a truly elite program. But here they are. Success. There is no doubt. Michigan State has played in every NCAA tournament since 1998.
"This program has done it over time," Izzo said. "We felt like we were playing for a lot of guys in the program."
He meant the players from 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago. You won't hear that from an NBA coach.
As Appling sat by his locker after this game, Cleaves walked over and congratulated him. Cleaves kept talking giddily, and Appling just smiled and laughed -- two guys who know what it means to play for Izzo, who feel like teammates even though they played a decade apart.
Cleaves said he doesn't like to compare eras. In college basketball, like in college itself, everybody has their time, and then they move on. So he won't say how this team would do against his squads. But he did say this: They live up to the standard.
"That's all we expect out of them: to see them go out with that toughness, that swagger, that expecting to win when you take the court," Cleaves said. "That's what we expect. Playing hard, communicating on the defensive end, sharing the basketball. That makes me feel good."