In college basketball, it’s all about winning in March. Nobody knows that better than Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo, who has coached his teams to four Final Fours and one National Championship since 2000.
Izzo's squads are famous for playing very tough non-conference schedules, and steadily improving throughout the year in time for the Big Dance.
Taking a look inside the numbers, it is noticed that when Michigan State plays better in March than in November, so therefore they enjoy more success than most programs in the tournament.
In 2006 through 2008 for example, MSU went a combined 37-5 in their non-conference schedules, but just 28-22 in Big Ten play. During the tournament in those seasons, the Spartans only reached the Sweet Sixteen once. These teams got off to very hot starts, then cooled down and later bowed out early in the tournament.
In the four years Michigan State made the Final Four this decade (2000, 2001, 2005, and 2009), they were not overly successful in non-conference games, but played very stiff competition. They played a total of 15 NCAA Tournament teams-to-be during those non-conference schedules, and at least three per year. They had decent success in those games, going 9-6.
However, during conference play in those Final Four years, the Spartans posted great results going 54-12 (.818 win percentage). In the other six years this decade, Michigan State was 60-38 (.612) in Big Ten play; still respectable but not up to Izzo’s standards.
So what does all of this mean for this year’s Spartan team?
MSU went 10-3 in non-conference, but struggled against some good teams losing to North Carolina, Texas, and Florida. However, they are 7-0 in Big Ten play for the first time both since 1977-78 and under Izzo.
Everything seems to be adding up if the statistics indeed tell the story, but the Spartans are in the midst of a key season stretch. They got off to a good start with a narrow escape at Minnesota on Saturday, but it does not get any easier as five of the next seven are on the road.
If MSU can go 5-2 in this stretch, they would be 12-2 in the Big Ten and still in control of the title race with only four games remaining. They would also be right on track for another deep NCAA Tournament run based on past history. We study history not only to remind ourselves where we’ve been, but also to get a good indication of where we are going. If the Spartans struggle, they will not only be locked in a tight race for the conference title, they may be in danger of exiting the tournament early.
Izzo will do everything he can to make sure that does not happen, and Spartan fans have no choice but to trust their adored coach. After all, MSU was not named Sports Illustrated’s team of the decade for nothing.