EAST LANSING, Mich.— Tom Izzo's resume at Michigan State could land him any of the 349 jobs in NCAA Division I basketball.
But few know he was rejected for coaching positions at MSU three separate times.
He finally locked down a spot under legendary Spartan coach Jud Heathcote on his fourth attempt and served a 12-year internship as an assistant before becoming head coach. Izzo grabbed the reins upon the retirement of his mentor in 1995.
A model of upper-tier consistency, Izzo has guided the Spartans to 12 consecutive NCAA tournament bids, eight Sweet Sixteens, five Elite Eights, four Final Fours, and one national championship.
Currently, only Arizona (25), Kansas (20), and Duke (14) have made more NCAA tournaments in a row than MSU. This streak ranks second all-time among Big Ten teams; Indiana earned 18 consecutive appearances from 1986 to 2003.
Reeling in talent has never been an obstacle for Izzo. Since 2000, the former Northern Michigan University guard has produced 11 NBA draft picks, third most among all college programs.
This year's roster features no shortage of standout players, including Big Ten Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas, and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Travis Walton. And like their predecessors, Izzo has placed lofty expectations upon them.
All season long, Spartan players have hyped the possible Final Four appearance in their second hometown, Detroit, just 90 miles from campus. Having disposed of Robert Morris and one of the nation's hottest teams, USC, it is clear MSU again possesses the talent to reach the Final Four.
This weekend, Izzo will keep the Spartans focused on the opportunity at hand—to represent Michigan State University in front of classmates, friends, family, and a national audience.
He squares off against Bill Self and defending national champion Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, marking the 18th time they have faced an opponent ranked in the RPI top-50.
Thus far, they have had little trouble disposing of the nation's most talented teams. Izzo's Spartans lead the nation with a 14-3 record against those ranked in the top 50.
In their most recent meeting on January 10, MSU coasted to a 75-62 victory, leading by as much as 21 points in the second half.
Outside of Sherron Collins (25 points, 8 assists) and Cole Aldrich (14 points, 11 rebounds), Kansas faltered against a more experienced Spartan lineup.
Lucas starred for the Spartans with 22 points and Goran Suton pulled down five offensive rebounds.
Youth contributed heavily to Kansas' poor showing against MSU. Tides turned after the Jayhawks' trip to East Lansing, however, as they streaked to win 14 of 16 games, securing the Big Twelve regular season title.
Quoted from the Detroit Free Press, coach Izzo certainly recognizes the growth in these two teams, "I don't know if we were as good then," he said. "I don't think they were as good then."
Combined, these two squads have run a 31-7 record since they crossed paths, each winning their conference title.
In their second bout, the dual between Suton and Aldrich is perhaps the most intriguing rematch.
Aldrich's production has increased drastically his sophomore season. He averaged 18 points, 16.5 boards, and six blocked shots against first weekend foes North Dakota State and Dayton. Versus the Flyers, he registered just the sixth triple-double in NCAA tournament history.
Despite an illness and a nagging knee injury that stole six games from his senior season, Suton posted six points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes of work against Aldrich. Of late, he has grabbed double-digit boards in four of his last five games. Like their teams, Aldrich and Suton have turned it on in the second half.
Though Izzo has bodies beyond Suton to check Aldrich, the emergence of Self's center cannot be dismissed. Look for Izzo to counter with Marquise Gray and Idong Ibok if Suton gets in foul trouble.
Both teams collected 1,245 rebounds in 32 regular season games, but the Spartans led the nation in rebound differential at +9.9. Kansas will have to scrap for boards with all five Spartans in the paint.
Whatever the outcome, MSU has flown under the radar this tournament. Many, even, ignore the fact that MSU has already dominated their upcoming contestant and believe Kansas will advance to the Elite Eight.
Very few national pundits believe them to be Final Four worthy. The success of the Big East and traditional powers North Carolina and Duke has shortened the vision of experts, as most consider Memphis and Oklahoma the lone championship contenders from middle America.
But that is just the way Izzo prefers it. Fewer headlines equals less pressure on his team.
Travis Walton's Mateen Cleaves-like leadership can propel the Spartans into the Final Four or further. He is desperately trying to avoid becoming the first four-year player under Izzo to miss a Final Four.
Though many credit MSU's success to the great players that have graced the program, Walton complements Izzo and his staff for their tournament preparation, "I think it's coach Izzo," said senior guard Travis Walton. "And the assistant coaches.
They do an unbelievable job and probably don't sleep that whole night. They watch five or six games—the next morning, we know all their plays, all their tendencies and what they could do" (Detroit Free Press).
If the Spartans upend the Jayhawks once more, they face the winner between Arizona and Louisville. Neither are impenetrable; the Wildcats stockpiled 13 losses and the Cardinals lost to Minnesota, who MSU beat three times.
The path is paved for Izzo and his team, and he fully comprehends what perseverance can mean to one's legacy. Having been rejected three times, he built an annual contender in East Lansing.