EAST LANSING — Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo is eating. Salad, if you must know. Along with rice and beans and stewed chicken.
He’s sitting in the mezzanine level of the new Dan Gilbert Pavilion, attached to Breslin Center, which will eventually turn into a hang-out lounge for his players, but right now serves as the team’s makeshift cafeteria.
The space is open and full of light, which streams in from a bank of windows that overlooks the pavilion. Eighty-inch televisions are on order. When it’s finished, and the decorative touches are in place, the team’s facilities will stand at the forefront of college basketball.
Big city, bright lights.
— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) November 14, 2017
“This I’m proud of,” Izzo said last week after practice, forking bites of dinner into his mouth. “Because I think I’ve had a big hand in building this. It’s pretty cool.”
You might say the same of his Michigan State program. He is the reason the Spartans are ranked No. 2 in the country. The reason they are playing No. 1 Duke tonight in Chicago, in the Champions Classic, a four-team invitational that also includes Kansas and Kentucky.
Every year in November, the four teams gather in an NBA arena. It showcases three of the sports’ bluebloods, and one program trying to crash the party.
For most of his 23 years as MSU’s head man, Izzo has coached as if he’s trying to bust open a door. His best teams play like it, too.
This season, his roster looks less like a chippy upstart and more like college royalty. He’s got three McDonald’s All-Americans, including two likely lottery picks if Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. choose to enter the NBA draft next spring.
He’s got a shooting guard — Joshua Langford — with the skill to play in the league. He’s got size. He’s got depth. He’s got a point guard who sees the floor like a coach.
Monday. Morning. MOOD.
— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) November 13, 2017
He’s got a senior leader in Tum Tum Nairn, Jr., a backup point guard, who is as close to Izzo as any player he’s had. Nairn Jr. stayed in East Lansing this summer. He and Izzo met almost daily. Which makes Nairn Jr. a kind of Izzo whisperer.
“He’s hungrier,” said Nairn “He’s also more relaxed.”
If that seems counterintuitive, well, Izzo explains it this way:
“I like this team. I feel healthier than I’ve felt in 10 years. I’m not less driven, (but) I’m maturing some.”
Izzo won his championship too soon, in 2000. At least it can feel that way when you spend the next 17 years chasing a second one.
This season, he’s got the most skilled and varied group of his tenure. Which means he’s got a lot of expectation. Fortunately for him, he welcomes it, because he’s pivoted in how he views the purpose of his program.
Yes, he still wants to win. Still plans on stomping his feet on the side of the court and barking at his players; OK, that’s not a plan as much as it is an ethos, and it’s congenital.
— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) November 13, 2017
Still thinks about his legacy. Just differently.
“I don’t feel pressure to do well,” he said. “I don’t look at this as running out of chances. I look at it as they’re running out of chances. I want this for them. I’m doing what I want to do.”
That’s the maturity talking, the perspective, the coach who’s had Hall of Fame success and no longer feels the blazing urge to prove himself. Though, in a tidy bit of irony, he now thinks he has to justify his Hall of Fame selection.
Yet, these are different motivations, subtle as they may seem. And it’s complicated, anyway, as it always is with Izzo.
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For so long, he admits he felt driven to win a second championship to secure his legacy. That it was about him. At some point, he realized it had to be about something more.
“Let me give you an example,” he said. “When I first came here, I hated Michigan so much. Well, not exactly Michigan, I guess, but I was pissed about the Fab Five. And I realized that when we played them, I was more obsessed with the opponent than with the game.”
That obsession got in the way of his preparation, of his coaching.
“I learned a lesson,” he said.
The same applies to his legacy, which is secure, as evidenced by the banners that hang from Breslin Center, and the Breslin Center itself. Its remaking offers a fitting analogy to the last decade of Izzo’s career.
— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) November 11, 2017
After bursting onto the scene with that NCAA championship in 2001 and Final Four appearances sandwiched around it, Izzo continued to haul in top-shelf recruits that eventually led to another Final Four appearance in 2005.
From there, he hit the (relative) wilderness, and kept his tournament streak alive by relying on gritty and gutty kids who were happy to be at MSU (Think Drew Neitzel).
Izzo loved those teams, but knew he needed more NBA-level talent to get back to making deep tournament runs. That led to a few teams that were stocked with players but not enough chemistry. And while it was fun to win — Izzo got to the title game in 2009 — it wasn’t as fun sleeping with both eyes open.
So he pivoted again, bringing in Draymond Green, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice and a handful of others who bled Spartan green. In the last four years, he’s had teams good enough to win the title but missed the Final Four (2014 and 2016), a team not good enough to win the title but got to the Final Four anyway (2015), and a team led by the most decorated recruiting class he’s ever had — last year.
All four teams, he said, “were a joy to be around.”
But no team combines chemistry, exuberance and talent like this one. That doesn’t mean this group will give Izzo his second title.
“So many things have to go right for that to happen,” he said.
It does mean, however, that Izzo has found his sweet spot, a balance of four-year kids and lottery-pick talent that embodies the kind of things he’s spent two decades building: grit, togetherness, skill, power and sacrifice.
“I guess what I’m at peace with is I know how we are doing it,” he said. “I know we are competing at a high level. We are right there knocking on the door more often than not. One of these days … that (expletive) is gonna open again.”
This article is written by Shawn Windsor from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.