Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was asked the secret to his success in March?
Izzo has tried to answer that question this week in Charlotte, just like he’s answered every other March for the better part of the past decade. He’s so successful in the postseason that on Friday he couldn’t remember if Michigan State had gone to seven or eight NCAA basketball tournament Elite Eights (it’s eight).
Known as Mr. March among colleagues and fans, Izzo’s teams have advanced to six Final Fours and won a national championship since he became the Spartans’ coach in 1995.
“Just to let you know, those same fans they think I golf in October, November, December and January, so I’m not sure that’s a compliment,” Izzo joked this weekend about the Mr. March nickname. “I don’t want to be thought of as a March coach. I get paid for all 12 months. So my (athletic director) gets ticked off about that.”
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Strapped with one of his least talented teams in recent years, Izzo must get past No. 2-seed Virginia on Sunday afternoon at Time Warner Cable Arena if he wants to earn his 13th Sweet 16 bid in 18 tournament appearances.
This year’s blueprint has been unlike previous seasons. These Spartans don’t have a star, moved its point guard to shooting guard earlier this season and only recently developed a semblance of toughness to Izzo’s liking.
As always, Izzo schedules a tough nonconference schedule. This year his Spartans faced Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame and lost to all three. They didn’t get a win against a ranked opponent until Feb. 14 at home against Ohio State.
Senior guard Travis Trice moved from point to shooting guard after battling fatigue at midseason. Izzo believed getting Trice off the ball on both ends of the floor would allow Trice – who has battled injuries and a brain infection during his college career – to better conserve energy.
The calendar turned to March and, yet again, Michigan State is a team you don’t want to bet against.
After a seven-point loss to No. 3 Wisconsin on March 1, the Spartans rattled off four consecutive wins against Purdue, Indiana, Ohio State and No. 8 Maryland, with the latter two games in the Big Ten tournament.
“We weren’t the toughest team, which is a trademark of our teams, I think, over the years and we didn’t live up to that,” Izzo said. “And so as we played against a couple teams on the road with our backs against the wall, we started showing some grit and character, and I think we topped that off in the last five games.
“In saying that, our margin for error is still very small. It’s probably the smallest of any team I felt pretty good about in my whole career here since we started going to the NCAA tournament. (We’ve) had one or two years like this. But I think they’ve embraced that. I think they understand it.”
Last week, Michigan State lost to Wisconsin by 11 in overtime of the Big Ten tournament championship. The Spartans led by as many as 11 in the second half before giving them all back by the end of regulation.
So Friday, after Georgia whittled Michigan State’s 13-point second-half lead to three, Izzo heard his players in the huddle talk about what they learned from the Wisconsin game. The Spartans staved off the Bulldogs and won 70-63.
“That’s encouraging because that means they’re not treating the history like it’s just the way it is,” Izzo said. “You treat it that you can’t change it, but you learn from it.”
In Michigan State’s history, if Izzo recruited a player and he stayed all four years, he would go to at least one Final Four. That streak ended last year with the Spartans’ loss to eventual champion Connecticut in the Elite Eight.
Now Virginia stands in the way of these Spartans starting a new streak.
“We don’t really feel any pressure,” Trice said. “It was disappointing breaking the streak last year and missing out on the opportunity, but we’ll have a chance to go this year and set our own mark.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9