- Tom Izzo says this year's Spartans are his most talented team yet, but is a national title in the cards? It will all come down to how Michigan State can handle the pressure of representing a university that has been embroiled in scandal.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – It was an hour before tipoff and Tom Izzo had to promise his team he was not resigning. This was Jan. 26, and everybody at Michigan State seemed to be resigning.
The school president, Lou Anna Simon, had resigned two days earlier, in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. Athletic director Mark Hollis had abruptly retired the morning of the 26th, after an ESPN report alleged his mishandling of sexual assault and violence against women in the Spartans’ football and basketball programs. Now there was a report from somebody pretending to be ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter that Izzo would “announce upcoming retirement in the next few days.”
One of Izzo’s secretaries asked him if it was true. He knew his players would see it. He was not sure they would know it was a fake Twitter account. So here he was, at 7 p.m. before an 8 p.m. tip against Wisconsin, reassuring the Spartans about his future.
“Instead of talking about the game, I’m saying, ‘Listen, guys, I’m not going anywhere,’” Izzo says.
Izzo sits in his office, one week before his team will play its first NCAA tournament game. He has sat here thousands of times, but never quite in this position.
The Spartans are 29–4. They won the Big Ten regular-season championship outright. They are a No. 3 seed, but one Vegas oddsmaker gives them the fourth-best chance of any team to win the whole thing, and some who follow the sport closely think that may be low. ESPN’s Jay Bilas picked the Spartans to win the championship. So did Dick Vitale. Michigan State has two likely lottery picks this summer—Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges—and elite college talent around them. The Spartans get along exceptionally well. They don’t fight over shot selection. They even pray together. Izzo says, “There is no question in my mind, it’s the best group of guys I’ve had—socially, academically and athletically.”
Even if Michigan State wins the national title, Izzo will always believe this was the strangest, hardest year of his career. His players have had to answer questions about a convicted pedophile who assaulted women for over two decades at their school. His biggest star, Bridges, has been loosely connected to the cheating scandal that has enveloped the sport. (His mother, Cynthia, allegedly received $400 from a runner for an agent when Bridges was in high school. The NCAA has cleared him.) An ESPN story strongly implied that sexual assaults were covered up in Izzo’s program years ago. (In regard to one alleged assault in 2010 that implicated basketball players, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, who were freshmen at the time, were investigated but not charged. Travis Walton, who had graduated, had an assault-and-battery charge against him dismissed. Izzo insists he followed proper procedures.)
Most of Michigan State’s key players have a sweetness about them. Sometimes they seem too nice. Izzo loves their personalities, but he also says, “If there’s a negative with this group, that would be it. I don’t have a street fighter…"
"I worry that we’re not quite as mentally tough,” Izzo says. “Caveat to that: Would my toughest teams be tough enough to handle this situation?
This situation is not of their making. These players have no connection to Nassar, the doctor who molested hundreds of women while he worked for Michigan State. They had nothing to do with the school’s handling of Nassar’s crimes, which was inept at best and corrupt at worst. No current players were cited in ESPN’s story alleging that Michigan State mishandled or covered up sexual assaults. Heck, the only reason we even know about Bridges’s family supposedly receiving $400 from an agent is because an FBI investigation revealed much more significant rules violations.
Still: these Spartans represent Michigan State in 2018. And that puts them in an awkward position.
“I bet you I went a month when I was sleeping two hours a night,” Izzo says. “And I’m supposed to come in with energy. And you know most of the reason I wasn’t sleeping? It wasn’t guilt. It was: I couldn’t figure out how to handle it.”
The season has been so strange and hard that Izzo isn’t even sure he can say it has been strange and hard. If he tells his side of events, which he has a right to do, he keeps the ESPN story alive. If he says the season has been difficult for his players, he looks like he thinks the big takeaway from the Nassar scandal is how it affects him. If he expresses empathy for the survivors, people would say he was grandstanding, or using their tragedy as a cover for himself.
When Nassar was sentenced, Izzo tried to say the right things. He called the survivors “the most courageous people” and said, repeatedly, that he was praying for them. He said Nassar “permanently damaged and changed the lives of so many of those people.” He said he wanted to help the survivors. But when he tried to say that anybody involved should go to prison, what came out was, “I hope the right person was convicted,” and he got torched for it.
So Izzo decided to mostly stay quiet, at least for now. He bit his tongue as he was asked the same questions again and again. He listened to his players, especially point guard Cassius Winston, give heartfelt, thoughtful answers to questions about Nassar.
And he tried to coach his team. But he wasn’t even sure how to do that. When the Spartans coasted but won anyway, should he rip into them, like he normally would? Or were they too fragile?
For a team that has national-title hopes, and a program that prides itself on scheduling, Michigan State is remarkably untested. For various reasons, their normally tough schedule fell apart on them. Michigan State has only beaten two NCAA tournament teams. Jackson, the Spartans’ most gifted player, has played a total of 30 minutes in those games.
It’s clear that the Spartans have the ability to win the national title. What’s not clear is if they are ready to do it. Izzo suspects that the distractions have worn on his team. Sometimes he asks his senior leader, “Tum Tum” Nairn, how the guys are doing. But there is no way to answer. Izzo says: “I’ll probably know 10 years from now. I’m not going to get that now.”
Everywhere Michigan State goes this month, people will ask the same questions. Somebody will ask about Nassar. Somebody will ask Bridges, who turned down NBA millions last year, about the $400 that his parents allegedly received from an agent when he was in high school. It galls Izzo. He has coached his share of knuckleheads and his share of NBA players. Bridges is the humblest star he has ever coached.
Izzo sits in his office, which has floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street.
“The day that thing came out about the $400, I’m standing in that window, standing right next to you, looking out,” Izzo says, gesturing toward the window. “It was raining that day, and [Bridges] is walking from his apartment to the Smith Center in the rain. He don’t have a car. You don’t see any jewelry with him. He should be the poster child for the NCAA. And the sad news is, I feel bad for him. He didn’t come back to deserve this.”
In October, Bridges was the smiling face of a sport that needed smiling faces. He could be making a fortune in the pros right now. He said he returned to Michigan State because he loved school. From all indications, that is indeed why he came back, and from all indications, he loves school as much as he ever did. Izzo says, “Put it this way: He ain’t dying to get out of here.”
Through all the tumult, this is the same Miles Bridges we expected to see. We are about to find out if this is the same team.