CHARLOTTE, N.C. –You have probably heard it already: “There is Tom Izzo again, working his usual March magic.” After all, his Michigan State team just stunned second-seeded Virginia, is headed back to the Sweet 16 and has a real chance to get all the way to the Final Four.
But this is not about magic. It never is.
It isn’t even a story about March.
Sure, if you saw Travis Trice score 23 points in Sunday's 60-54 win over the Cavaliers in the East Regional, you may have thought: There is Michigan State, rising to the moment in March again. But did you know that, shortly before tip-off, Trice didn’t even know which Virginia player he would guard? MSU's coaches thought it might be Evan Nolte. It turned out to be Justin Anderson, making his first start after coming back last week from a broken finger and an appendectomy.
Uncertainty can mess with a player’s mind. When did Trice learn to deal with it? It may have been when he had a blister under a blister last year, putting him in excruciating pain. Or when he had a mysterious brain infection before his sophomore year, which he literally thought might kill him.
Or it might have been in November, when Michigan State opened the season against Navy … on the road, in a loud, uncomfortable little bandbox called Alumni Hall, not for RPI or BPI ratings, but because quiet and comfortable don’t test players like loud and uncomfortable do. Then again, maybe it was when the Spartans played Duke four days later, or Kansas two weeks after that, to learn how the most talented teams would exploit their weaknesses.
Maybe it was the whole nonconference schedule, designed once again for Michigan State to face every possible style, so nothing would be a surprise. Maybe it was when the Spartans played three days in a row in Orlando, to help the young players understand how quick turnarounds work.
Maybe it was in individual workouts, when the coaches told him every practice shot and every weight lifted matters. Maybe it was in practices designed to test a player’s resolve.
Or maybe it all helped, a little bit, and that’s why Michigan State beat a Virginia team that was superior all season, right until it really needed to be.
Hey, it’s March, right? Anybody could see a Michigan State upset coming. But did you see Branden Dawson coming? This Dawson?
For four years, Dawson has been an enigma—a devastating force for 10 minutes, on cruise control for the next five. Friday afternoon against Georgia, in the 126th game of his career, Dawson disappeared for stretches. He committed a dumb foul. Izzo kept screaming at him, pushing him to be the player he could have been.
And before the 127th game of his career, Dawson led the team in the pregame huddle, something he rarely does. This time, the green light in his head went on and never turned to red. He had 15 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and may have been the best player on the floor.
Maybe you saw Izzo cracking jokes in press conferences and pumping his fist by the bench, and you thought “I’d love to play for that guy.” Spoiler alert: You probably wouldn’t. Izzo is not for everybody. There are days when he would lose a popularity contest in his own office.
“He drives us nuts,” assistant coach Dane Fife said. “Probably twice a day I want to strangle him. But we all know we’re going into battle with somebody who’s got complete faith in us.”
Fife understands: greatness can be uncomfortable. Izzo is relentless with his players. It’s not enough for him to break down their jump shots and help defense and ball screens. He has to know about their girlfriends and siblings and schoolwork. He’ll ask a senior why a freshman is struggling in class, or ask another player why his roommate seems down, and was that guy out late again, and why do you need to check Twitter anyway? Focus!
It’s exhausting. But that’s why Michigan State usually plays so well at the end of the year. Izzo addresses distractions before anybody else sees them. He pushes players long after logic says they are what they are, and he should just live with it.
You probably saw the Spartans hit big shots against Virginia. But did you notice veteran assistant Mike Garland on the bench, sitting between two players, several seats away from the rest of the coaching staff? Garland always sits there.
“Managing players,” he says.
With most teams, all three assistants sit together, either acting like head coaches or trying to get in the real head coach’s ear. Garland learned a long time ago that Michigan State did not need four coaches in the same place, doing the same thing. So when Dawson went to the bench Sunday, Garland coached him on passing out of the post. He helped his big guys make defensive adjustments before they were absolutely necessary.
In sports, pretty much everybody talks about building a “winning culture.” Nobody does it better than Izzo. He molds teams that can run or grind it out, face man-to-man or zone, because he knows that come March, it won’t always be his choice. He recruits tough players and makes them tougher. The message is clear:
If the door seems bolted, push harder.
Sometimes you wonder if the pushing will break the team. But players understand: Izzo does it because he believes. A month ago, the Spartans were in real danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997. By the start of the Big Ten tournament, Izzo was telling his team: “We’re gonna win this!”
They ended up losing to Wisconsin in overtime in the title game. But then the NCAA bracket came out, and Izzo told point guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr.: We’re going to get you a game against Buddy Hield.
Hield grew up with Nairn in the Bahamas. He plays for Oklahoma, which is seeded third in the East. Michigan State had to beat 10th-seeded Georgia and second-seeded Virginia to get a chance to play Oklahoma, and of course Izzo didn’t know if the Spartans would do it. But he needed them to know he expected it.
That’s why he pushes. That’s why you see what you saw Sunday, what you see almost every March. The only magic in the program is Magic Johnson, its most famous alum, who cheered on his Spartans at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Mostly it’s just hard work and relentlessness, passed down now from one generation to the next. Former MSU star Draymond Green texted Trice on Sunday morning, urging him not to let his season end. In the layup lines and the locker room, Trice told his teammates: I’m not ready to go out.
Then he took the floor, learned which player he would guard to start the game, and launched an assault on Virginia.
Trice made one big mental mistake in this game. There was 1:39 left in the game. Michigan State led by six. Trice launched a jumper with 23 seconds left on the shot clock, instead of burning some more time, and he missed.
But at least he shot it. At least he expected to make it. That was frankly more than you could say for Cavaliers star Malcolm Brogdon, who missed nine of his 12 shots and looked like he wouldn’t hoist shot No. 13 if you gave him a million dollars in small, unmarked bills.
When Michigan State’s coaches scouted Virginia, the guy who worried them the most was Brogdon, because he can get his own shot. And as Michigan State squeezed the last drops out of Virginia's season, Brogdon found himself with the ball and Nairn guarding him.
Nairn has Spartans DNA: he is tough, competitive, energetic, defensive-minded, and he has a chance to be one of Izzo’s favorite players before he leaves. But he is still a freshman, and at 5'10" he is a good seven inches shorter than Brogdon.
With a little freshman on him, in the biggest moments of the season, Brogdon picked up his dribble, with no idea what to do next.
Was that Michigan State’s doing? Izzo would argue no—he said plainly afterward that Virginia just didn’t play well, and his team couldn’t take credit for that. He is probably right. But in March, Michigan State rarely looks the way Brogdon did: mentally sapped, with no place to turn.
Three years and a college basketball lifetime ago, Izzo stood in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis after one of the best wins of his career. Michigan State had just beaten Ohio State in an epic Big Ten championship game. Most of the Spartans were eating, celebrating, hanging out with family and waiting for the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
Izzo stood in the back of the room. He was pleased with the win, of course, and he was looking forward to the NCAA tournament … but as he talked about his team, he brought up his freshman guard, Travis Trice, who had only played 10 minutes that day and only made one shot. Trice had injured his ankle twice that year. As virtually everybody else in the program relaxed and enjoyed the moment, Izzo said he really wanted to see what a healthy Trice could do. I’d say he found out.