Wednesday March 10th, 2010

Tom Izzo is in his office, talking about how the season almost fell apart.

First, his freshman wing made a game-winning shot against Wisconsin, but officials decided it came after the buzzer.

"A good call," Izzo admits. "But the replay the next day (showed) there should have been another second on the clock," Izzo said. "If I woulda ..."

His voice trails off, and it seemed like he was done talking. But there is more pain to share: the Spartans went to Minnesota, he says, and their star point guard pulled a muscle in his back in the morning shootaround. A few weeks later, they went to Illinois and the point guard got a concussion and had to skip the Northwestern game, which Michigan State lost.

Izzo sounded frustrated and disappointed. OK, fine. All coaches get frustrated and disappointed sometimes.

But Izzo was bemoaning a sequence of events from eight years ago.

Is this normal? Is it normal for a man who has coached his teams to five Final Fours to sit in his office in 2010 and recite, from memory, everything that went wrong in a 2002 season that was really not all that bad anyway?

Izzo thought for a moment.

"Boy, that's a damn good question," Izzo said. "I guess that's how much it bothers me."

*****

This month, for the 13th consecutive March, Tom Izzo will lead Michigan State into the NCAA tournament. The sheer impressiveness of this achievement means that it does not seem like news. Of course the Spartans will make the tournament again. They always do.

And yet: North Carolina won't be there this year. Neither will Connecticut or UCLA, which has won more championships than any other school.

In popular perception, Michigan State is always contending and always doing it the same way: with tenacious defense and great rebounding and super coaching from Izzo. Michigan State is considered a model of stability, the program that is always the same, always there.

Izzo does not look at it that way. Not exactly. The way Izzo sees it, the program could have fallen apart at any moment in the past 13 years, and it never has.

"People ask me: 'What do you fear? What do you worry about?' " Izzo said. "That's what I fear. I've seen UConn, even Georgetown for a while there, even Syracuse, Florida ... I've seen all those teams (slip). And once you go down, it's hard to go back up."

The first time Izzo made the Final Four, in 1999, everybody he'd ever met told him, "Now you've made it." Izzo's response was always the same: Made it? Talk to me 10 years from now.

Eleven years have passed. Michigan State has made four more Final Fours, giving Izzo the best March track record in the country. Even now, he worries. Three years ago, he had one of his least talented teams, and all season long there was an undercurrent of desperation. Just keep that tournament streak alive. That's all that matters. Michigan State snuck into the tournament as a nine seed, and on Selection Sunday, Izzo was filled with relief. We survived.

In the tournament, Izzo will joke with the TV people, smile under the lights of press conferences, give an extra few minutes to reporters he's never met. He will seem like the steadiest, securest person in the room. Most people won't realize how much he tortures himself. He remembers every near-miss, every almost-championship, every injury that kept a good season from being great.

"Those things eat me away," Izzo said. "It's like making money: You never think you have enough. If you ask me: 'Do you ever sit down and really think about it?' No. That's the shame of the job. You never really enjoy it."

He won't let himself enjoy it. If he loosens his grip on his program, he might look down and realize it's gone. A lot of coaches, especially the most famous ones, say they don't read newspapers or check what's on the Internet. Izzo admits he reads and listens to everything.

At the end of one regular season, he got heat for ... well, it doesn't really matter why anymore. What matters is Izzo's response: "It pissed me off so bad I called up a radio show myself. I just wanted to tell the people to go (bleep) themselves."

Izzo's complaining, his bitching, his angst -- it has caused more than a few eyes to roll in East Lansing. Does Bill Self ever complain that his home crowds are not as loud as they used to be? Does Ben Howland? Izzo does, every year.

But this is who he is. If you want one of the best coaches of his generation, you have to accept the whole package. If you want Roy Williams, you live with the corniness and the end-of-season tears. If you want Mike Krzyzewski, you must grant him total control of his fiefdom. And if you want Izzo, you get the angst.

Izzo's program is an open book, and in exchange, he expects reporters to read the damn thing. He put his cell phone number, and the cell phone number of all his assistant coaches, on his business cards. Krzyzewski would rather change his name to Dean than do that.

And the funny thing is that people still don't quite get it. They don't fully understand why the Spartans are always so good.

For example, Michigan State, under Izzo, has been the best rebounding team in the nation. This has spawned the popular narrative about Izzo and Michigan State: that this is a rugged Big Ten powerhouse that wins by knocking opponents on their butts.

Every March, wherever the Spartans go, a bunch of articles about their "War Drill" follow. The War Drill is a take-no-prisoners rebounding drill. Michigan State runs it every day.

The problem with War Drill stories is that they can be factually accurate and yet mostly wrong. Yeah, sure, Izzo instills toughness. But that alone doesn't explain why his teams rebound so well.

"Our rebounding, I don't know why it's stayed so good," Izzo said. "You've seen us practice. We work on it every day -- for five minutes. It's not like we spend 25 minutes."

Izzo points out that Michigan State's style of play is a major factor. The Spartans prefer to stop penetration instead of jumping into passing lanes, like Duke does. This leaves more players in the lane to rebound -- and, because the Spartans don't get many steals, it means the opponent takes more shots, creating more potential rebounds. Plus, Michigan State loves to get out on the fast break; every coach in the Big Ten knows this, so they don't send many players to the offensive glass. This creates more rebounds, too.

That doesn't fit into a War Drill story, and let's face it: it's all kind of boring. Technical basketball stuff is what it is. But that is the point. This is how Izzo built his empire: by studying every last detail and exploiting every little way that his team could win.

Besides, anybody can run a drill. How do you motivate a team to run it right? Izzo always find a way, and this feed another perception about him: that he can coax the best effort out of anybody.

Again: Izzo doesn't see it that way. Every season, he pulls his hair out trying to find the right way to inspire guys who are not so easily inspired. He pines for what he calls "self-motivated kids and player-coached teams." He had one of those player-coached teams once, in 2000. That team won the national championship.

He has coached 501 games at Michigan State, more than 20,000 minutes of game time, and he says he only really enjoyed a few of those minutes. They came at the end of the 2000 regular season, when Michigan State beat an awful Michigan team, 114-63.

"But it wasn't because of the score," Izzo said. "I sat in the locker room before the game, and I said to (assistant) Mike Garland, 'I have one dream. I just want to be ahead by enough to enjoy two minutes of it. I just want to sit on the bench and enjoy these guys.' "

With a few minutes left, Garland tapped Izzo on the shoulder and said "You're done." Izzo sat down with Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson. He did not know they would win the national championship a few weeks later. But he knew they had a great chance. He knew that he would not have to beg them to defense or pass the ball and he would not have to wonder why his players were so quiet in the huddle. He knew they wanted it as much as he did.

That was 10 years ago. Izzo has been trying to recapture that feeling ever since.

*****

Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten title again this year and will surely be a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. Seems like business as usual again in East Lansing. But it's never business as usual for Izzo.

"In some ways, this group is really a frustrating team to coach," Izzo said. "I'm used to so many teams that have great leadership, even if they weren't great teams. But this team has accomplished a lot."

These Spartans beat Purdue on the road, then came home and nearly lost to Penn State. They are that kind of team. They are talented enough to make another Final Four but shaky enough that, if they lose in the first weekend of the tournament, it won't surprise anybody who has watched them all year.

Izzo wants to shake them sometimes. What is wrong with them? Why are they so distracted at home? Why isn't Kalin Lucas a natural leader like Cleaves was? Why hasn't Raymar Morgan developed like Peterson did? Why does an athlete as gifted as Durrell Summers play such poor defense? Just this week, Izzo suspended guard Chris Allen for a Big Ten tournament game for conduct detrimental to the team. Don't they know it can all fall apart?

Some days, he wonders if he is reaching those guys. But hey, they did win the conference title. And he loves his guys. He just doesn't understand them sometimes.

A few years ago, while going through the list of everything that was plaguing his (very good) team, Izzo paused and said: "One thing I'm thankful for: I don't have any (bleeps) on my team."

This is by design. If he thinks you're a bleep, he probably won't recruit you. Izzo has taken one high-profile recruiting risk since becoming head coach: in 2000, he brought in Zach Randolph.

"I have guys that play for the university, for their teammates," Izzo said.

That's another reason why the Spartans grab all those rebounds: they know somebody has to do it. They know that somewhere, Cleaves and Peterson are watching, and that if the program slips, all those former players will hold them accountable.

When their coach walks into the practice gym, he carries the memories of the 2000 title with him, but also the memories of 1997 and 2002 and 2004 and 2007, seasons that he should forget but never does. Tom Izzo remembers the all those times when his program could have fallen apart. And maybe that's why it hasn't happened yet.

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