CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Whenever they have a chance, Michigan State players go for the head.
It’s an easy reach, for one thing. And it’s rare that a single hair is out of place on that dome of Tom Izzo’s. After Sunday’s 60-54 win over Virginia to extend and further redefine their season, the Spartans had a moment joyous enough to do some mussing in their cramped Time Warner Cable Arena locker room.
“That’s what we do,” junior center Matt Costello said. “We love messing up his hair.”
By the time Izzo emerged from that locker room to start explaining how yet another of his teams won a game it wasn’t supposed to in the NCAA tournament, the hair was perfect again. It has grayed some and thinned quite a bit since the 60-year-old Izzo started this sprawling run 20 years ago. But it’s consistent, like his raspy voice and Upper Peninsula jokes and sideline glares — and like his program.
And that’s really what’s going on here.
Now that the No. 7 seed Spartans (25-11) have knocked out No. 2 seed and purported national title contender Virginia (30-4) to get to the East Regional semifinals, you’re going to hear two things often this week. One, a lot of people picking MSU to beat No. 3 seed Oklahoma (24-10) on Friday in Syracuse, N.Y., and the winner of No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 8 seed N.C. State on Sunday to reach Izzo’s seventh Final Four.
Two, the term “best coaching job.” Certainly, a glance at Izzo’s roster and the dramatic improvement of his team this season warrants the discussion. He’s got one McDonald’s All-American (senior Branden Dawson), his other senior star (Travis Trice) was brought in as a nice kid who could add some perimeter depth, and he has several other guys who were Plan B or so on the recruiting board.
Exactly three weeks ago, MSU was 19-10 and facing games against Purdue and Indiana that threatened to leave the Spartans squarely on the tournament bubble. Now this team looks like it can reach the Final Four, and belong in it.
Dawson has found a way to keep his fire burning and is one of the most difficult matchups in the tournament. Trice and Denzel Valentine are leading and doing everything on both ends. Every role player on this team has had important moments since that Purdue-Indiana week. The Spartans are playing team defense at an incredible level, without elite defenders all over the floor.
This team held it together when its late-game failures, mostly at the foul line, turned it into a bubble team. It just beat one of the best teams in the country in a virtual road game, with a defensive game plan devised and absorbed in a matter of hours.
So yeah, that’s some coaching. But Izzo’s best? Is it better than 2010, when he lost Kalin Lucas early in the tournament and got to the Final Four with a team that was much less unified than this one?
Or 2007, when Drew Neitzel and the Neitzelettes scratched into the tournament and gave No. 1 seed North Carolina a scare in Winston-Salem, N.C.?
Or how about handling the monstrous expectations of winning it all entering the 1999-2000 season, and then doing it? You can define great coaching in a lot of ways. But the answer here is simple: It’s the same coaching job.
Izzo is going to push and demand more than most of his peers attempt, yet he’ll keep his guys playing for him. He’s going to be seen by his recruiting targets more than most of the other head coaches in pursuit, and if he loses out on a stud he’ll find someone who wants to be at MSU. And he’ll push that one to be great. He’ll scout opponents like this is football.
His defense will look shaky in November. His offense will look muddling in January. His fans will send out tearful Internet apologies to him in March when both are viciously efficient — an outcome that isn’t possible without the process.
“Consistency,” Izzo said in the concourse Sunday afternoon, after his 11th NCAA win as a lower seed in his 18th straight tournament, “is what we’re all looking for.”
Rosters, staffs, circumstances, hair products and bracket pairings change. As long as Izzo’s running things, MSU basketball won’t.