In 2014, Tom Izzo didn’t complete the long haul to familiar territory.
No, instead of reaching his seventh Final Four, he and his Michigan State Spartans met their March Madness demise after losing 60-54 to UConn in the East final this past Sunday, March 30, at Madison Square Garden.
An Elite Eight is OK for the other 99 percent. But for those one-percenters, those from the same ilk as Izzo, Final Fours are the true measure of success.
However, the loss to coach Kevin Ollie’s seventh-seeded Huskies doesn’t mean that Izzo’s lost his touch, nor does it suggest that he’s in danger of somehow relinquishing control. It was a loss—a tough one, for the record—that could actually serve as a teaching tool.
Remembering the great times motivates teams to achieve. But remembering the bad/almost times, in a way, increases their hunger during the hunt.
Finding a true leader is always on a coach’s to-do list.
For Izzo, the luxury of having built-for-it floor generals has paid dividends several times over. Think of those from the past—Drew Neitzel, Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves and even Travis Walton—and then compare the 2013-14 Spartans roster to that group.
The closest thing to the real McCoy was senior 1-guard Keith Appling, who was expected to set the tone for a masterful March. Of course, the whole plan changed as the Spartans, who got just 10 points all tourney from Appling, entered MSG against one of the tournament’s favorite stories—a UConn squad led by an ascending guard, who just so happened to be Shabazz Napier this time around.
Returning to the Promised Land of college hoops isn’t rocket science. It’s been four years since his most recent, but Izzo’s never gone more than four without a visit. The four-year player/Final Four tradition was snapped in half this past weekend, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t be restored in the near future.
That “near future” could be as early as the upcoming season, as Tum-Tum Nairn, a freshman who’s been compared to Cleaves, gets set for what should be an upwardly productive career in East Lansing.
Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello will be juniors. Travis Trice will be a senior. Izzo has something to work with.
According to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press, Izzo said the following about the need for leaders:
You need a guy in those huddles that you can go to, and that probably hurt us a little bit this year, but I’m just gonna make sure that we don’t go that way again if we don’t have to. But if I have to ... I can’t make somebody into something they’re not. And by the way, there’s probably 300-some, 350 other teams that maybe have a leader superficially, there ain’t that many great ones.
In a way, feeling for Appling is mandatory. He gave his everything to the program. Seven points separated him from a legacy-defining moment.
Seven points separated him from destiny.
Seven points robbed him of a rightful place in Izzo-era lore.
Typically, guards have been the catalysts. Green wasn't one, but he thought and played as such. The Dancing Bear was Izzo's first point forward.
The resumes of Neitzel, Cleaves, Lucas and Walton speak for themselves. Each of them were key cogs during sprints to the dance of all dances.
Leaders don't grow on trees. And no, "there ain't that many great ones," either. But Izzo knows where to look.
Recruiting and Roster Management
Acquiring talent through recruiting is a never-ending process. Recently, Izzo's had to walk away from high-profilers, and that hasn't necessarily satisfied the masses of fans who are waiting for the next great thing in green and white.
Izzo needs the guards and the stars up front. But he also needs role players to fill in the gaps. He had all of that this year.
It's a daunting task. Finding the right balance takes time and a certain amount of patience. It's never "rebuilding," it's "reloading."
In all likelihood, in addition to grooming the supporting cast to desired consistency, Izzo will have to replace Gary Harris, a sophomore who's all but certainly bound for the pros, and plug in another for Adreian Payne, who just completed a marvelous four-year stay.
Harris' spot would have been filled nicely by Chicago St. Rita's Charles Matthews, the No. 1-ranked shooting guard of 2015, per 247Sports. But the 6'6", 172-pound 5-star chose Kentucky.
In the not-so-distant past, Cliff Alexander wanted to be the next Payne. At one time, the Chicago Curie standout power forward had Michigan State high on his list.
But the 6'9", 240-pound 5-star chose Kansas, which receives the No. 3-ranked player of the class.
Far from highlights, whiffing on Matthews and Alexander—and others like them—brings about a slight uneasiness. Grabbing a shopping cart's worth of blue chips has never been his style, but he's landed a select few in past years.
One of those was Branden Dawson, a junior who, over the past month, played the best ball of his collegiate career...and who is probably off to the NBA.
One-and-done culture will never dominate Michigan State, not on Izzo's watch. But taking a gamble and actually securing an Alexander or Matthews, or another Harris or Payne, is certainly in order.
Not Broke, Don't Fix
Following the loss to Ollie's Huskies, Izzo's coaching tactics were called into question by several members of the media. For the most part, griping to various degrees about timeouts and personnel use dominated the discussion.
But in East Lansing, it's blasphemous to second-guess Izzo. However, there are those who believe that he was actually out-coached by Ollie, who devised a beautiful approach that upended one of March's forefathers.
Steve Kerr, of multi-ring Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs fame, wasn't one of those people. During a conference call this past Tuesday, the TNT analyst delivered a firm answer when asked if Izzo was outsmarted by the second-year Huskies head man:
I think that the coaching matchup stuff is sort of overdone. Michigan State was outplayed. I don’t think they were outcoached. Tom is the best in the business. ...That happens sometimes. They were taken out of rhythm because UConn was so good [defensively] on the ball.
I don’t think that you can always point to a coach not having his team ready to play. His resume speaks for itself.
Kerr's probably right. After all, he knows basketball better than most. From 1993-98, he played for one of the game's greatest minds, Phil Jackson, the Zen Master himself. Recognizing superior coaching is like blinking an eye for Kerr, who won five championships during his 14-year career in the Association.
But, there's a but. Izzo admitted to not having his team prepared. In turn, Kerr was quick to point out that men of Izzo's character always fall on the sword.
There's a gray area here, but let's agree upon a central theme: As a whole, players and Izzo included, Michigan State wasn't prepared. But that doesn't mean that Izzo has to alter or abandon his already proven methods.
Essentially, that was Kerr's primary point.
Izzo shoulders the load. But there is no one better than he when it comes to adjusting the machine that is Spartans basketball.
He'll get back. He always does.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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