ST. LOUIS -- In the aftermath of Michigan State's pulsating 70-69 win over Tennessee that sent the Spartans to the Final Four, Mr. March held court in the center of a rapidly emptying locker room. Predictably, Tom Izzo tried to find as many other people as possible to credit for the Spartans' latest trip to basketball's holy land. In no particular order, he mentioned his current players, a currently injured player, a former player who is now on his staff, a former player who is a Hall of Fame point guard and the program's 13 (yes, 13) managers.
Here's a newsflash, Tom: The guys who pick up the towels are not the reason your team, with three starters carrying various degrees of debilitating leg injuries, is improbably headed to Indianapolis. You are.
This is not the time to spread the credit around or mince words. After the fifth-seeded Spartans' latest remarkable March march, which included four wins by a total of 13 points to nab the program's sixth Final Four appearance in 12 seasons, it is time to state the truth.
Tom Izzo is the best college basketball coach in America.
Relax, North Carolina and Duke fans. No one's slighting your leading men or their career accomplishments. We're talking about right now, this very moment, two days after Izzo pulled off the near-impossible and made Michigan State's three-year turn-of-last-decade run now look more like the rule rather than the exception.
Think last season's dramatic push to the national title game in Detroit with a youthful roster was stirring? This year's Spartans have overcome a leadership void, player-coach discontent and a back-stiffening gym-floor sleepover in addition to the late rash of injuries. Their quartet of NCAA tournament wins are highlighted by a crucial lane violation, a buzzer-beating three and the country's largest temporary (and most loquacious) point guard dropping a delicious dime that helped beat Tennessee.
And let's be honest: On the list of legendary college basketball settings, how long after Westwood, Lawrence, Chapel Hill and Durham would it take to finally get to East Lansing? Izzo doesn't get enough credit for the level of talent he brings in, considering he's selling kids on winters in central Michigan. Meanwhile, RoyWilliams' office phone has a golden arches insignia on it.
It's almost enough to provide the framework for a hokey movie plot, except Izzo's coaching style and success are so boringly predictable, what would the poster even look like?
One man ... rallies a team of rag-tag youths to glory ... by extolling the virtues of rebounding ... and defense.
"... [One] of the hungriest, humblest people who achieved as much in their business as anyone I can imagine ... " -- Bruce Pearl, Tennessee coach.
"... He's the best in the nation when it comes to the NCAA tournament. He has his team always prepared, they always are ready ..." -- Magic Johnson, former Michigan State star, 1979 national champion.
"... Seriously, I've gotten way too much credit for [these Final Fours]. It's the players that do it ..." -- Tom Izzo, praise-deflecting metronome.
Wait, how did that last one get in there? That's not going to make people want to beware the Izz of March, but that's part of what makes the man The Man.
OK, if he's not going to brag about his work when the lights are brightest, these bullets will do it for him:
• He's now the second coach in the 64-team era to make getting to the Final Four a coin flip over a 12-year span, after Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
• He now has more Final Fours than any active coach other than Coach K (11) and Roy Williams (7), and has done it in 15 seasons, for a 40 percent success rate. That matched Krzyzewski's Final Four yield before Sunday's win over Baylor ... if you ignored his first 10 seasons as a head coach before making his initial trip in 1986. Roy's seven appearances are in 21 eligible seasons, or 33 percent of the time.
• Overall, Izzo is now 35-11 in the NCAA tournament, a .761 winning percentage that places him snugly between Coach K and Williams in second place for all active coaches.
• He's now 16-3 on the second day of an NCAA tournament weekend and 6-1 in Elite Eight games, making him a better closer than Mariano Rivera.
• He can do it as the chalk or as the dog. All three times Izzo's team was a No. 1 seed, it made the Final Four. This is the second time he's done it as a 5-seed.
For his next trick, Mr. March meets Hoosiers 2, and we get one of the most absurd coaching tales-of-the-tape in Final Four history.
In one corner, there's Izzo with his six-in-12. In the other, there's Butler's Brad Stevens, who looks like he's 12. Izzo's national title team in 2000 was built around the Flintstones. Stevens' TV watching schedule in 2000 was built around the Flintstones. Heck, when Izzo took over at Michigan State in 1995 from fellow legend Jud Heathcote, he could have recruited Stevens, who graduated from D-III DePauw in 1999 and was Butler's team manager a decade ago.
And here's the hoot: Michigan State is a 1.5-point underdog. To a mid-major. It's hard to believe anyone at this point bets against Izzo, let alone should get points to take him. If form holds, the streets will once again flow with the blood of the nonbelievers.
If he does win that one, Izzo may get a chance to definitively settle the current pound-for-pound title fair and square with a title-game triumph over Duke. With all due respect to Williams, whose Tar Heels blasted past the Spartans on the way to national titles in both 2005 and 2009, Izzo's never gone 5-11 in the Big Ten. So keep your eyes peeled on the sidelines this weekend, because the best college basketball coach in the land will be in action at the Final Four. And, yes, Mike Krzyzewski will be there, too.