Injuries, expectations, recruiting add up to frustrating season for Izzo

Friday March 14th, 2014

Despite a spate of injuries, Tom Izzo led Michigan State to a 23-8 regular-season record.
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Tom Izzo is at a crossroads, and that alone is annoying. He is 59 years old. He has won a national championship and taken Michigan State to six Final Fours. He should have passed all his crossroads by now. But here he is.

Izzo's Spartans have suffered so many injuries, they should have held the team banquet in a doctor's office. Almost everybody who matters on his team has been hurt. The injuries have ranged from the typical (Gary Harris' ankle, Adreian Payne's foot) to the bizarre (Branden Dawson broke his hand while slamming it on a table during a film session) to the mentally draining (point guard Keith Appling's wrist) to the ridiculous (Travis Trice had a blister under a blister and couldn't walk).

And because Izzo is honest when talking about his team, he has spent an inordinate amount of time talking about injuries, and he sounds as frustrated as ever (which is saying something), and people think it's because of the injuries ... but the injuries are not really the source of his frustration. Oh, sure, they are part of it. But injuries are temporary, and this season will be over in the next few weeks, however it ends.

Izzo's frustrations run deeper. There are a few reasons for this. One is the trap that snares most successful college coaches. They try to build programs so strong that nobody can question them. Then the program is built, and people question them more, because expectations are higher and more people are paying attention, and it drives the coaches nuts.

Another reason -- and this might be the biggest -- is recruiting. In the past two years, Izzo went hard after some of the top recruits in the country. This was a change in philosophy for Izzo, and there were some unusual circumstances, but he recruited the kinds of players that normally go to Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, with the hope that his program was finally on that level. He lost them all -- mostly to Duke, Kentucky and Kansas.

Still, he had one of the best teams in the country this year before the injuries.

"You add all of those up," Izzo said in his office this week, "and yeah, that's a full plate."

This brings us to the crossroads. Where does Izzo go from here? The recruiting swings-and-misses have left his program with limited talent for the near future. After this season, he may need two or three more years of hard grinding before he has a team with real Final Four hopes again.

Is the fight worth it? Or should he just walk away -- take a TV job or give the NBA one shot? He admits it's a fair question, but says he will stick around.

"It ticks me off enough that I'm going to prove myself right, or prove everybody wrong, or whatever you want to say," he said.

He has made a few tough decisions, starting with this: He is done chasing the best players in the country. Chasing one a year, that's fine, but beyond that? Not worth it.

The world of top-10 recruits is not Izzo's world. Fans speculate about cheating, and that surely happens, but that is only part of it. As Izzo says, "It's very difficult ... there are so many influential factors." There are too many hangers-on, too many voices in player's ears, too many agendas. Izzo is starting to realize: Even if he had landed some of those top players, he might not like coaching them.

"Yeah, and that's what I warned my football coach [about]," Izzo said, speaking of Mark Dantonio, who also built a power with less heralded recruits. "You've got to get good players, but you can't change who you are, and you've got to realize who you are. We've always had some good players, but it has been a blue-collar program, and it hasn't worked so badly. There are six banners hanging down there, and seven Big Ten championships ...

"That's probably what I've got to remind myself once in a while. Because if you start having some real good years, then you just right away assume there is more interest (from top recruits) ... that doesn't mean those players are right for you."

There are exceptions, of course. He still has the highest admiration for Jabari Parker, even though he spent so much time recruiting Parker that his mentor, Jud Heathcote, mocked him for it, even before Parker chose Duke. (In classic Heathcote fashion, he called Izzo after watching Parker this year and said, "Now I know why you wasted the time.")

But Izzo is increasingly irritated by our right-now culture -- players who want what they haven't earned; fans who forget what happened three weeks ago, let alone three years ago; and, as he says too often for his own good, social media.

"I'm like the poster child against it," he said. "My assistants get mad because they think it hurts you in recruiting."

He wants to be clear about his players and Twitter: "I don't have a problem with what they tweet. I got a problem with what they read." A player can learn from his Twitter mentions that he is ready for the NBA or unworthy of his scholarship. It makes it harder for the player and harder for the coach.

But social media is here to stay. The recruiting world is not going to magically clean itself up. If Izzo wants to keep doing this, he must live with the parts of the job he doesn't like.

And for all the talk about Michigan State's injuries, an encouraging truth has emerged from this season: Top-10 recruits are not as important as they seemed. Look at the teams near the top of the college basketball polls. Wichita State, Virginia, even Florida and Syracuse and (Izzo might not like this, but it's true) Michigan -- are all thriving without top-five NBA draft choices.

Duke is really good with Parker, but not dominant. Kentucky's latest collection of talent is a dysfunctional, unwatchable mess. Kansas may have the top two picks in the draft in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but even before Embiid got hurt, the Jayhawks were not an overwhelming team.

"It's funny," Izzo said. "People are worried about, 'You're going to lose two or three guys (after the season). Florida, their leading scorer averaged, I think, three points a game in his first year -- (Casey) Prather. (Patric) Young was a major disappointment. What did (Michigan's Caris) Levert average last year? Somebody steps up. The big kid from Wisconsin -- (Frank) Kaminsky. Those things happen."

Through all the injuries, the misery, the #Twitterproblems and the recruiting failures, Izzo has learned: A well-coached team with really good players can win the national title. Perhaps even his.

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