Tom Izzo's reputation precedes him. You do not want to face an Izzo-coached team in March. You certainly don't want to face one in the NCAA tournament.
Izzo is one of the best college basketball coaches in America today, and he has built his reputation on what his teams do late in the season. Izzo's troops are prepared, tough and extremely hardworking. They are the modern-day personification of a Spartan; perhaps no other nickname in college basketball is more apt to a team's style of play.
They are, in some ways, a mirror image of their mentor. Even Izzo's voice—that unmistakable rasping tone—says everything you need to know about the man…and his teams.
When it comes to tournament time, Michigan State is there, and it is there to fight. Izzo's teams play the game of basketball like a grizzled unit preparing for conflict.
Nobody wants to play Izzo's Spartans. Not in March.
"We make no bones about it when they get here," Izzo told reporters this week, via The Virginian-Pilot. "Our goal is not to get into the tournament anymore. It's not to make a decent run. Our goal is Final Fours and win championships."
While Izzo has just one NCAA championship on his resume, he has gone to six Final Fours to go along with seven Big Ten regular-season titles and four conference tournament crowns.
It's interesting, though, that in his 17 seasons at Michigan State—he started in East Lansing in 1995—Izzo has just 467 career victories. Truly, it seems like it should be more.
It's not that 467 wins isn't a lot. It certainly is, especially for a coach in a power conference with less than 20 years of head coaching experience. It's just that Izzo ranks 71st all time in wins, as per Sports-Reference.com, behind the likes of Billy Donovan, Fran Dunphy, Dana Altman, Jim Larranaga and Tubby Smith, to name a few of the many active coaches still ahead of him.
Izzo is also just outside the top 50 in terms of career winning percentage at a hint over 71.5 percent. Still a fantastic mark—winning more than 70 percent of your games every year is sure to have your team fighting for conference and national titles—but perhaps a bit lower on the overall list than one might expect for a coach of his reputation and esteem.
That's why looking at what Izzo has done late in the season is so remarkable. He has been a very good coach for a very long time.
It's what he does in March that makes him great.
Izzo took over for Jud Heathcote after the 1995 season and after consecutive NIT appearances to start his tenure as head coach of the Spartans, Izzo's teams have earned a spot in the NCAA tournament every season since.
The current run of 17 consecutive tournaments is bested only by Duke and Coach K, who has 19 straight seasons in the tournament, and Kansas, which has gone dancing 25 straight years between Roy Williams and Bill Self.
What's more, Izzo's record in the NCAA tournament is uncanny, winning 41 of the 56 games he has coached, including 12 trips to the Sweet 16 or beyond.
Only four times in the last 17 seasons has Michigan State failed to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Only five times have the Spartans failed to make it to the second weekend.
What's even more impressive than that, however, is Izzo's record in the second game of an NCAA weekend. It's one thing try to beat the Spartans with nearly a week to prepare. It's another thing to try to beat them on one day's rest.
In 17 trips to the NCAA tournament under Izzo, Michigan State has been knocked out in the second game of a weekend just three times.
Izzo's record in the second game of an NCAA tournament weekend is 18-3, and that includes losing in the 2009 national championship game. If State wins in the Sweet 16, there is every reason to expect a win two days later.
The Spartans have, however, lost in the Sweet 16 four times under Izzo, including each of the last two seasons. Before Michigan State fans book tickets for North Texas (Harvard did give them a bit of a scare in the round of 32), there are a few very good teams standing in their way, most notably the top-ranked team in the region.
Virginia was given the honor of being selected as the top seed in the East, before getting smacked in the face with the notion of playing Michigan State—the team many pundits picked to win the entire tournament—in the Sweet 16.
That doesn't seem fair. Not in March.
Cavalier coach Tony Bennett knows how hard the challenge is going to be for his team. Via CBSSports.com:
This will be, in my opinion, the best team we have played all year. They have a program that's established. Coach Izzo has won. They play very physical. They don't take possessions off, and it's why he's had success in conference play, but (also) in NCAA tournament play.
Izzo has been to the Final Four six times; only five coaches in NCAA history have gone to more. Izzo is also one of just five coaches in history to take the same school to the Final Four six or more times.
Izzo's teams traditionally get better as the season rolls along, too. In his career, from the turn of each respective new year until the end of the season—essentially from the start of conference play through the completion of the NCAA tournament—Izzo has a sparkling record of 284-134 (.679).
What's more, Izzo has posted a losing record between the months of January and March just twice; in his second season and 2011, when Keith Appling and Adreian Payne were freshmen.
Since that season, the Spartans—led by Appling and Payne—have a combined record of 48-19 from the turn of the new year through each season's end.
In the month of March—which includes some late regular-season Big Ten games, the Big Ten tournament and the NCAAs—Izzo's career record is 89-41 (.684.)
Izzo has only had a losing March three times in his career, and none since 2007. In the last three seasons, the Spartans are a combined 16-7 in March.
There is a reason Michigan State was the hot pick coming into the NCAA tournament despite losing seven of the final 12 games of the regular season. It's March. Somehow, the Spartans got hot and healthy at the right time and put together another classic run through the Big Ten tournament and into the dance, winning their last five games by an average of 14 points.
Nobody wants to play Izzo's Spartans now. Not this year. Not in March.