Whimsical tales of Tom Izzo delighting his way through March Madness have become staples of college basketball.
As one of the game’s elite ambassadors, the 19-year-veteran Michigan State head coach, one who’s been to six Final Fours, is a surefire Hall of Famer and symbolizes everything that’s right within collegiate athletics.
Along the way, the Legend of Izzo, the folklore surrounding the Man from Iron Mountain and the Mr. March discussion have all been aided by a cast of memorable and unforgettable tournament heroes.
Biggest MSU tourney moment?
During the 2000 title bout, Mateen Cleaves shrugged a bum ankle and propelled Izzo past Florida's Billy Donovan. In 2009, Kalin Lucas’ floater in the lane essentially dropped Kansas in the Sweet 16.
And there's always Korie Lucious' buzzer-beating three-pointer that ousted Maryland in 2010.
March, at least in part, gives meaning to the legend. The Madness is to Izzo as Izzo is to the Madness. They coexist, and guys line up to get a taste of the action.
That was all fine and good, but it wasn't enough to sway Moe Ager, an all-time Spartans great.
No, becoming a three-year star for Izzo was the furthest thing from the game plan, says Ager, who was drafted No. 28 overall in 2006 by the Dallas Mavericks.
In 2002, the time of his recruitment, the Legend of Izzo was in its infancy, despite having three Final Fours ingrained in its chapters.
The national title, though, was attractive.
A swirl of "mixed emotions" were difficult to kick.
"I questioned the system for guards a little. I had my doubts before going to Michigan State. I can be honest—I went to Michigan State because my mother wanted me to. I committed to Missouri, initially. That’s where I wanted to go," he said.
"But something kept telling me Michigan State—my mom wanted me to go there. But my plan was Missouri—two years and out. I was young and ignorant. Eventually, I smartened up and looked at the overall picture. [MSU] is a great program for athletics and schooling. I’m further in life because of it.
"If you eliminate basketball, the life lessons that I learned are irreplaceable."
In hindsight, signing a letter of intent was a golden call for Ager, who says that "[during my recruitment] we weren't the Dukes, the Kentuckys—but were were close. As it stands now, Michigan State basketball can easily be put in the top five of history."
Basketball Is Secondary
On the surface, Izzo's primary objective is to win basketball games, hoist banners, recruit well, then repeat.
And then repeat again.
However, the gritty coach teaches lessons that go well beyond the gym.
Sure, he helps refine athletes' skills, but he also challenges their minds, says Ager, who, in addition to managing a successful entertainment and business career, works with Original Heroes, an outreach program focused on promoting healthy lifestyles.
Helping others was always a part of life for Ager, but Izzo's words, in one way or another, influence just about everything that he does.
"He always says it’s a dog-eat-dog world (laughs). I applied it. Not in a negative sense—but once you're out of the basketball realm, that’s when life really starts. You have to get 'it.' I don’t want to say it's every man for himself, but you have to be on your Ps and Qs," he said.
"Focus on your journey, or it’ll get shaped for you.
"Some athletes struggle in day-to-day—it was all done for them during their careers. Some avoid the real world we’re living in—you have to be responsible. I love it. Izzo prepared me for that, life in general."
Far from an NBA player mill, Michigan State is among few top-shelf programs that embrace the three- and four-year player culture to its fullest extent—and some of Izzo's best players find their true callings beyond the hardwood, says Ager, a Grammy-nominated music producer who helped lead the Spartans to the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis.
"We get our hoops in, and were ready to move on," he said. "I made the choice very early in my pro career that I was ready to move on and do something else.
"I was always more than basketball, but basketball isn't forever. The memories are. But there's more to life."
Can They Win It All?
It may seem like a waste of time to ask a Spartans icon if Michigan State can win the national title.
Anything less than a "hell yes" would be shocking. Michigan State, the East's No. 4-seeded team, easily disposed of No. 13 Delaware in the round of 64, 93-78, and is projected to be the last man standing come April 7, per President Barack Obama.
Despite allowing Davon Usher and Devon Saddler to combine for 41 points—also known as Adreian Payne's output—the Spartans look incredibly sharp, says Ager, who is confident that the familiar Izzo-coached Spartans magic will come into play during the tournament.
"Delaware guards were really good. [The Hens] made it there for a reason. They made tough shots—a couple of times Gary Harris played great D. Great players are going to get buckets," he said.
"They had nothing to lose, and did a great job of making tough shots.
"The first game is to get it going. Getting over that first game is difficult. You’re used to a certain style of play in the Big Ten, playing against different teams and concepts in the tournament [can be difficult].
"I think this is a national championship team. Appling—he’s good, I like him a lot. If he can give us 11 points and still run the team, I think it’s a no-brainer [that MSU wins title].
"And of course Dawson. He’s got to bring it.
"Gary Harris our best player—he’s further than I was when I was a sophomore. We were loaded when I was a sophomore. As far as his growth—I love Gary Harris’ game. He’s going to go down as one of the greats."
|Final Fours||National titles||Tourney appearances||Winning Pct.|
|1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010||2000||17 straight||.726 (prior to 2014)|
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.