It was Friday afternoon and I was just sitting down to the work station, ready to hunker down for what is always a jam-packed night at the online desk when a co-worker came up to talk to me.
The topic, of course, was Michigan State basketball. The Spartans had a date with the Kansas Jayhawks later in the night and the guy wanted to get my thoughts on the game. I was perfectly honest. After telling him that big Cole Aldrich scared me and I was afraid of Sherron Collins slicing through the lane like hot knife through butter, I ended with this: “But, if history has taught me anything, it’s not to doubt Tom Izzo.
The steady hand that guides the blue-collar program has made a habit of cutting down nets, making Final Fours and proving all of his critics wrong.
And, darn it if he didn’t do it again.
After a nail-biting 63-60 victory over a very game Jayhawks squad, Michigan State blew past Louisville today, 64-52, to reach yet another Final Four this coming weekend in Detroit.
As Greg Couch points out, there’s been a perceived — if not completely obvious — Big East bias in the media’s coverage of college basketball season. Pundit after pundit talked about how Louisville was too tough, too fast and too battle-tested for the Spartans to overcome.
And in the morning, there was Digger Phelps on ESPN, getting to Izzo again, saying, roughly, that Michigan State had no offense, no chance against Louisville. Izzo has hard feelings about Phelps, Dick Vitale and ESPN. He believes they are teaming up to push an East Coast bias, leaving Michigan State out of the nation’s elite. That’s why Louisville, champion of the Big East, with the slick style and superhyped coach in Rick Pitino, represented many things for Izzo.
But each unexpected three-pointer from Goran Suton and with each well-planned possession, Izzo’s squad was able to shake a monkey of the back of the Big Ten. The Spartans’ brand of ball isn’t as flashy as some others, but the results speak for themselves.
Every four-year player at Michigan State in the past 14 years has reached a Final Four under Izzo. This year’s berth is Izzo’s fifth in the last 11 years. He’s cementing his legacy as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history, and he’s doing it with the Midwestern values so many of us in this region choose to identify with.
It can’t be overstated what his teams’ successes mean to not just his university, but the conference as a whole.
Jay Mariotti writes that while Izzo is not the typical behemoth standing up against the media bullies, he’s more than able to handle the critics and stand up for the Big Ten.
I think sometimes, we anoint a league, said Izzo, referring to the Big East. Sometimes, matchups at this tournament in general for everybody, every year, can determine who wins and loses. Certain teams don’t play as well against certain teams. For some reason, you think of Louisville, you think of racehorse basketball. I think we’ve averaged, like, two points less than them this season. So I’m giving my normal hurrah for the Big Ten because I think too many people, especially some on TV, have abused it. I think our conference, top to bottom, is also one of the best in the country. I really do. And I think sometimes, people evaluate that on how many points you score or what goes on or what perception you have. And I don’t agree with that.
And while the rumor mill is spinning ideas of him leaving to take the recently vacated Kentucky job, I and other Michigan Staters hope with all our hearts that he stays and continues to build on what has become an elite program.
Izzo’s impact on the university can’t be completely quantified by wins and losses. He is the de facto face of the plucky land-grant school, the figure who has shown hard work can pay off. These March runs bring together a student body and alumni net in a way that has this uniquely exciting energy about it.
Saturday’s game against Connecticut will be played at Ford Field, which stands just 91 miles from the Spartan’s home court, the Breslin Center. For a state that’s struggling so mightily, all of the anecdotal evidence I’ve gotten so far suggests that this particular postseason run is giving the people of Michigan a little ray of light in a dark time.
I, for one, am enjoying the hell out of the ride.