Three consecutive losses to rival Michigan apparently had little effect on the confidence of Spartan senior leader Draymond Green.
Even after an ugly one-point loss to Big Ten rival Illinois and a knee sprain, Green declared that only “death” could keep him from suiting up against the Wolverines.
Michigan State’s do-it-all forward even possessed the brashness to guarantee a win for his team last Sunday. He then proceeded to back it up with one of the gutsiest performances in Spartan history. His 14-point, 16-rebound, four-assist effort helped lead his team past Michigan 64-54.
For Michigan State basketball players, though, this insatiable will to win exhibited Sunday by Green is expected, not applauded, primarily thanks to one man.
Spartan’s head coach Tom Izzo is a Michigan man himself, hailing from a town called Iron Mountain.
Not only does Iron Mountain signify Coach Izzo’s birthplace, but also his uncompromising coaching style.
One of Coach Izzo’s favorite practice drills, imitated in hundreds of high school gyms across the country, is called “war.” The idea of the drill is fairly simplistic: Five players starting on the interior try to collect a rebound against five players spaced out along the three-point line.
Nearly every basketball rule is tossed out the window during war. Fellow teammates crash into each other like linemen, until the drill eventually resembles a scene from Fight Club. Izzo’s motto, that “players play, but tough players win,” is never more evident than during a competitive game of war.
The physicality that Izzo demands has been a calling card for the program since 1995, when he assumed head coaching responsibilities.
Since that time, Spartan fans have witnessed a remarkable stretch of sustained excellence: one NCAA national championship, 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, six Big Ten championships, six Final Four appearances and a 19-11 record against Michigan.
For Izzo, the formula for success always goes back to his team’s ability to out-work any opponent it faces. Year after year, Michigan State excels in rebounding and team defense—two areas of basketball dictated more by will than skill.
From the recruiting process on up, State keys in on team-first players who set their personal agendas aside for the team’s benefit.
During MSU’s remarkable 15-year run, Coach Izzo has continually proven that he doesn’t need North Carolina or Kentucky talent to make a deep run in March, only the right group of guys.
This culture of toughness has paved the way for one of college basketball’s elite programs and will always place them a cut above the neighboring basketball program in Ann Arbor. Whether it’s head-to-head matchups (19-11 in the Izzo era) or postseason success, the Spartans remain superior to Michigan in almost every way.
Unlike the Spartans who pride themselves on this aforementioned effort, Michigan’s basketball program has never been about out-working opponents. Even during its golden days of the high-flying, trend-setting “Fab Five,” Michigan relied mostly on unbridled athleticism and raw talent. Since that time, the Wolverines have struggled mightily.
While Michigan has failed to discover an
NCAA tournament bid identity this side of the new millennium, Izzo has been hard at work cultivating one of the finest basketball programs around.
From the 2000 NCAA Championship “Flintstones” team, whose nickname even oozes an element of ruggedness, to this year’s squad lead by battle-tested senior Draymond Green and a collection of younger players, each squad has been expected to physically and mentally strain immeasurably.
Michigan State will continue to re-load its arsenal with talented recruits intent on doing things the “Spartan way.” It doesn’t appear that Coach Izzo’s impressive run will fizzle out anytime soon.
With all of his astounding MSU basketball records in mind, perhaps Izzo’s greatest accomplishment will be the indelible, rugged mark of expectation left on the Michigan State’s basketball program.
Toughness will forever be synonymous with Michigan State basketball. And until Michigan can overcome this either through tremendous talent or similar fortitude, it will never be considered the Spartans’ equals.