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Tom Izzo, Tragedy-Stricken Michigan State Deliver Signature March Magic

Izzo’s Spartans have fashioned yet another run of unexpected NCAA tournament success out of indescribable pain.

Heart perpetually on his sleeve, Tom Izzo shed tears Sunday after getting Michigan State to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 for the 15th time. “It’s been a tough year,” Izzo explained after the No. 7 seed Spartans upset No. 2 Marquette in the East Region. This was an understatement.

No basketball glory can erase the pain from the Feb. 13 mass shooting that left three dead and seven wounded, shattering the Michigan State campus. But Izzo stepped forward to do his part as a consoler and a unifier in the aftermath of that tragedy. In public remarks at a campus gathering, Izzo declared that he’s “just a basketball coach,” but he’s more than that—he’s the most recognizable Spartan, and arguably the campus’s greatest energy source.

“I don’t like the place,” he said that night. “I don’t love the place. I live the place.”

This is his 40th year at Michigan State. He’s as invested and entrenched there as Jim Boeheim was at Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski was at Duke. His words had an authenticity to them. And it was clear that whatever small part Tom Izzo could play in helping Michigan State piece itself back together, he would do his very best.

He would mother hen his own program, looking out for the emotional well-being of his players. And if, in turn, those players could provide some basketball diversion and joy to their fellow students in the weeks to come, Izzo would work his hardest to deliver a product Spartan Nation could be proud of.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo gestures emphatically during second-round game vs. Marquette

Tom Izzo always coaches with his heart on his sleeve, but especially so this year in the wake of Michigan’s State on-campus shooting in February.

Michigan State split its last six games before this tournament—sometimes playing surprisingly well, sometimes looking flat. With a 19–12 record, the Spartans were a middle-of-the-pack seed in a tournament with a small supply of dominant teams. They were, ultimately, one of many teams with a chance.

And that chance was enhanced by Izzo, the old March master, the guy nobody wants to see in their Bracketville neighborhood. USC certainly didn’t want to see the Spartans, who dispatched the Trojans with relative ease in the first round. And then here came Big East champion Marquette.

Shaka Smart took VCU to the 2011 Final Four as a No. 11 seed, one of the great Cinderella runs in the history of March Madness, but most of what’s followed has been underwhelming. He’d lost six straight NCAA tournament games prior to Friday. In the round of 32, Michigan State was a most unwelcome opponent.

Sure enough, the Spartans jumped all over the Golden Eagles early. Then Marquette came back, bombing in three-pointers to make it a game and setting up for a dramatic conclusion.

Except Michigan State took the suspense out of it by making every key play down the stretch: big shots, big stops, a pivotal blocked shot that just barely avoided being a goaltend. Once again, Izzo advanced while Smart was sent packing.

With Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jay Wright retiring within the last two years, Izzo’s tournament record stands out all the more compared to his remaining peers. The 15 trips to the Sweet Sixteen ties for sixth in history, trailing only Coach K (26), Dean Smith (21), Boeheim (20), Roy Williams (19) and Denny Crum (16). Izzo now is tied with the likes of John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight.

Is a ninth Final Four there for the taking? Why not? The rest of the East Region competition is not the most daunting: No. 3 seed Kansas State, No. 4 Tennessee, and either No. 9 Florida Atlantic or epic Cinderella Fairleigh Dickinson. Nobody is counting out Izzo in Madison Square Garden this week.

The standard line in East Lansing is that the first three months of the year are January, February and Izzo. That’s the level of his impact on tournament basketball.

This is another chapter in Izzo’s Hall of Fame bio. But regardless what happens the rest of this NCAA tournament, February might have been his best month this year. And it has nothing to do with winning basketball games.