Tom Izzo is feeling ‘greedy’ as Michigan State enters season with championship aspirations
ROSEMONT, Ill. — When the NCAA Final Four convenes next April in Atlanta, Michigan State will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the championship claimed by Mateen, MoPete and the Spartans’ coach, Tom Izzo.
He wasn’t exactly a kid then. Izzo had served a long apprenticeship before ascending to the position of head coach, but it was only his fifth season in that job. It was his second consecutive Final Four. Indiana was nearing the end of its Bob Knight era, and Michigan was entering its post-Fab Five miasma. A new Midwestern basketball dynasty seemed possible, perhaps even likely.
And that’s sort of what has developed. The Spartans have been to a total of eight Final Fours under Izzo, including another last spring. They’ve won nine Big Ten regular-season titles. They’ve been to every NCAA Tournament since 1998. There has not been, however, a second NCAA title.
“We’ve really been pretty damn consistent, and that means a lot to me,” Izzo said, surrounded by reporters in a ballroom at the O’Hare Hilton. “It’s easy to have a good team or a good couple years. But if you can stay where you’re consistently competing, where every year you think you have a chance to win the league or every year you think you have a chance to go deep into the tournament — I couldn’t ask more out of my career so far. This year, I’m going to ask a little more out of my career because I’d like to get that second [title] sometime.
“I don’t think I have to win another one to validate what I’ve done. I think I have to win another to validate what I want.”
Izzo is not retreating from the possibility this could be the year. Perhaps out of respect for Izzo, perhaps as a nod to All-American point guard Cassius Winston, perhaps because of “freshman fatigue” and thus not wanting to anoint Kentucky or Duke again, pretty much every major outlet that has projected a top 25 for the 2019-20 season has Michigan State ranked No. 1. That’s all the big yearbooks — Blue Ribbon, Lindy’s, Athlon, Street & Smith’s — plus online outlets CBS Sports, ESPN and NBC Sports.
For the Spartans’ support to be that overwhelming, one might think the starting lineup comprises Magic Johnson, Steve Smith, Mateen Cleaves, Draymond Green and Morris Peterson.
This is a talented, experienced team that has tasted the Final Four and knows it can do better. It is a team that replaced the two most notable departures from last season’s Big Ten champions with superior players already on the roster. And it has Winston, the nation’s best point guard a year ago.
“I think it’s a privilege. I do. And I tell my guys: We can’t look at this as a burden,” Izzo said. “We have earned the right to be ‘one of.’ So they flip a coin — somebody’s got to be it. And this time, the coin turned green.”
Michigan State finished last season ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency at KenPom.com. Only two other teams shared that distinction: Duke, the team the Spartans beat by a point to earn their Final Four berth, and Virginia, the team that finished as NCAA champion.
The only two players gone from that team were center Nick Ward, who was injured late in the season and lost his job to preseason All-Big Ten pick Xavier Tillman, and shooting guard Matt McQuaid, who excelled in a larger offensive role following a season-ending foot injury to No. 2 scorer Joshua Langford, who was averaging 15.0 points and shooting 40.3 percent on 3-pointers. But Langford is back to resume his role as an elite defender and scorer. He has been cleared for full basketball activities for more than two weeks.
“I feel great. I’m not trying to force anything, but also not trying to be too reserved,” Langford told Sporting News. “Of course, it’s going to be an adjustment, because I hadn’t been playing the game of basketball, haven’t been really even walking at one point — I was on that scooter — but for the most part, everything has gone well. By the grace of God, I know I’ll be back to where I need to be.”
The Spartans open their season Nov. 5 at the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden, matched this time against Kentucky and returning regulars Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery, plus another group of gifted freshmen. They’ll also play at Seton Hall in the Gavitt Games, head to a Maui Invitational that could include a title-game matchup with Kansas and then welcome a visit from Duke.
That’s all inside the season’s first month.
Those teams all are Final Four contenders now. Izzo knows as well as anyone the vagaries of a given season might impact any or all of them on the way to March. When MSU won the 2000 title, its opportunity to be installed as the No. 1 Midwest Region seed — which meant opening the tournament in Cleveland and then playing the regional close to home in Auburn Hills, Mich. — resulted from the season-ending injury to All-American Kenyon Martin that knocked Cincinnati out of the No. 1 ranking.
That NCAA men’s basketball championship wasn’t just the most recent for Michigan State. It was the last for any Big Ten school. Michigan has been in the title game twice since, along with Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State and the Spartans. But none celebrated at the end.
“What keeps me going is, we’re knocking on the door quite a few times in that period,” Izzo said. “You know what I want? I want our players, I want our fans, I want our media — I want everybody that’s involved with us to be able to share in something like that. Cause it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. I’m just being greedy, and I want it twice in my lifetime, you know?”
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