One thing CBB Today publisher Joseph Nardone is good about doing: He makes sure that when coaches achieve at a high level, he doesn’t equate quality of personhood with quality of coaching. This is not a veiled shot at Tom Izzo. This is part of responsible commentary.
Not for Izzo, not for Roy Williams, not for Mike Krzyzewski, not for John Wooden or Dean Smith, not for anyone in college basketball or all of sports: You’re not a better PERSON because you win more, and you’re not a WORSE person because you lose more. When we who write or comment on sports say, “This coach/athlete is AMAZING,” we are referring to the craftsman, the person who works in a profession, not to his ethical or moral compass.
That point might be obvious for some, but it is not obvious for all, so it is important to begin with that disclaimer or clarifying preamble.
Now that we have that point out of the way, let’s simply say it: Tom Izzo is amazing. More precisely, his record of consistency at Michigan State was powerfully affirmed on Sunday in Washington, D.C. Beating Duke, Coach K, and Zion Williamson — even when the Spartans missed a lot of bunnies and played far from their very best at the offensive end of the floor — not only represented a substantial feat in its own right. It extended the remarkable reach of Izzo through his shimmering Michigan State tenure.
Michigan State tweeps have kept me informed of this over the years, so I know the updated reality in East Lansing on this April Fool’s morning: With Sunday’s win, only ONE senior class under Izzo at Michigan State has failed to make the Final Four: the Class of 2014… which made the Elite Eight and PROBABLY would have made the Final Four had UConn not been given a de facto home game as a No. 7 seed in Madison Square Garden. If that game had been in Greensboro or Louisville or even in the Carrier Dome, Michigan State probably wins… but MSG is Storrs South, and UConn had a lot of extra juice that day in the East Regional final.
As it is, though, Izzo — on the job as Michigan State head coach since 1995 — is now batting 23 of 24 in leading senior classes to the Final Four at least once.
23 of 24.
That’s not a typo: It’s not 13 of 24. Nope: 23. Of 24.
It’s a fact.
Izzo’s first season was 1995-1996. His first crop of freshmen from that season became seniors in 1998-1999… when Michigan State made its first Final Four under Izzo, beating Tubby Smith and Kentucky in the Elite Eight in St. Louis to advance to the 1999 Final Four in St. Petersburg, Florida, before losing to Duke and Coach K.
Since then, Michigan State has had the uncanny ability to make the Final Four at least once every four years, with that sole exception of 2011-2014, being denied in the Elite Eight by UConn (and the lazy bracketing of the selection committee).
The 2005 senior class was about to miss the Final Four after misses from 2002-2004, but it beat top-seeded Duke and second-seeded Kentucky to make the Final Four in St. Louis.
The 2009 senior class missed from 2006-2008, but destroyed top-seeded Louisville in the Elite Eight to return to the Big Show.
The 2014 class was the one class which missed the Final Four, and when the 2015 team fell to a No. 7 seed, it seemed it would become the second… but it knocked off second-seeded Virginia and third-seeded Oklahoma — with Buddy Hield — and then survived Louisville and Rick Pitino in overtime in the Elite Eight to get back to the Final Four.
Izzo made a couple of “sand saves” to keep this senior class streak going. In 2005, Michigan State was a 5 seed. In 2015, his team was a 7 seed. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat twice.
Then he outcoached K on Sunday, and sure enough, this Class of 2019 — after three straight misses — has been able to taste a Final Four in Minneapolis. Michigan State will return to Minneapolis for a Final Four after having made the big party in that city in 2001.
Every Tom Izzo senior class has reached the Elite Eight. 23 of 24 have made the Final Four.
Izzo now has eight Final Fours, and on Sunday, something else happened: John Calipari — who figured to make his seventh Final Four at Kentucky — did not join Izzo in Minneapolis for an Italian-American reunion.
Sunday began with Calipari and Izzo figuring to be tied at 7 Final Fours apiece when the day was over. Instead, Izzo now has an 8-6 advantage. This doesn’t settle any arguments. Calipari could very easily rattle off three Final Fours in the next four seasons in Lexington to change the debate.
Yet, on one day at the end of one very long season, Tom Izzo’s place in college basketball history certainly grew.
It’s not easy being green… unless you’re a Michigan State Spartan in March.
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