By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) Many might be unaware but equally as unsurprised that this season could mark a milestone for Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo: The 2017 NCAA Tournament would be the 20th straight for the Hall of Famer.
In the 19 previous tournaments, Izzo’s Spartans have made 13 Sweet 16 appearances. So not only are these Michigan State teams a safe bet to play in March but one that smart money says will play in its second weekend. And Izzo has made the Final Four in more than a third of those appearances.
His Final Four count is at seven, the most of any coach in the aforementioned span.
Which is why I’m boggled as to how the validity of his teams as national championship contenders continues to be questioned. The Spartans’ 4-1 record in the Big Ten leads the conference, but Michigan State remains unranked in a meaningless set of rankings.
The Spartans limped out of this year’s non-conference slate, losing five games. That’s more than any Big Ten team including, yes, Rutgers.
Yet, people seem enamored with the numbers and less so the analysis. For the dense among us, it’s easy to point to wins and losses. But click your mouse a couple times and you’ll see that four of the five non-conference losses came against then-ranked opponents: No. 10 Arizona, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 20 Baylor and No. 5 Duke.
Other coaches run in fear of tasking their teams with too much in the non-conference season. By comparison, Duke only played one ranked team, Rhode Island, during its non-conference slate, though it did schedule a Michigan State program that typically finds itself among the top 25.
Izzo loves to live on the edge. He has job security, something only a handful of coaches can claim, but he seems to be the only one among them who consistently populates his schedule with the toughest programs the country has to offer.
It ends up benefiting his teams in March.
Back-to-back games against Arizona and Kentucky represent something Michigan State may see come the second weekend of the tournament. Three straight against Baylor, Wichita State and Duke is much tougher than any stretch Michigan State will see in its Big Ten schedule.
It’s simple, really: Make the early part of the team’s schedule so hard that the rest seems just a tad easier. That’s what’s in the secret sauce, which really shouldn’t be much of a secret anymore.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.