By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Amid the madness of March just beginning, with a Wisconsin celebration breaking out for the Badger faithful filling United Center, Tom Izzo had a message for his Michigan State team.
Wisconsin was on its way to a Big Ten Tournament crown on March 15 with the outcome decided, and the Badgers were ready to rejoice. But Izzo put a quick halt to that. There were 3.7 seconds left in overtime, the game well out of reach and his players gassed in the huddle. Izzo called a timeout and heard it from the frustrated red-clad fans.
End it, Izzo!
Izzo wasn’t doing this to tamper with Wisconsin’s moment. He didn’t have a play to draw up, of course, not with 3.7 seconds left in an 11-point game. Michigan State had its chances to beat Wisconsin and couldn’t pull it off. Defeat was a bitter pill to swallow.
Inside this exhausted huddle, Izzo looked at each Spartan player with a simple message.
“He made us look around,” recalled senior Travis Trice after that game. “Look around the gym, and he wanted us to look at that and remember that feeling. Take that all in. That way, we don’t want to feel that feeling again.”
In typical Tom Izzo fashion, it was the right button to press.
Eight days later, the seventh-seeded Spartans are still alive in the NCAA Tournament. They held off the feisty Georgia Bulldogs in the round of 64, then upended Virginia for the second straight season.
Naturally, the national narrative is of Izzo and his March magic. How does he do it, so many wonder. What’s his secret formula?
“We prepare different than everybody else in the country,” junior guard Denzel Valentine said.
The Spartans opened their season at Navy before 5,699 fans in Annapolis. They barely won, and questions loomed as to whether this Michigan State group could have Sweet 16 success.
It’s an Izzo test.
Facing a hostile environment, Michigan State managed a win against Navy that may as well have been a loss. It was later tested by an overtime loss to Notre Dame and inexplicable defeat from Texas Southern at the Breslin Center, but the Spartans weathered the storm into Big Ten play.
Each practice that followed brought grueling work and reminders of how good the team could be. Izzo pushes, and he pushed for better.
A double-overtime loss to Maryland was another test, as was a near-disaster with Northwestern at home. Izzo sounded off plenty during this time, knowing he had his work cut out to make these Spartans live up to the program’s lofty standards.
To no surprise, Michigan State began clicking in February, playing better basketball. By March, a long season’s work reveals its results. It’s consistent each year come tournament time, too. Never has a group of Spartans quit on Izzo’s demands.
“We may not have the top-ranked McDonald’s All-Americans, but we work hard, and we’re tough players, too,” Valentine said.
“This is the time where players are made — especially at Michigan State.”
The most important test follows in tournament time, beginning with the Big Ten’s bracket in Chicago. This isn’t an Izzo test, or so he claims. Branden Dawson gets a phone call from Magic Johnson and Draymond Green. Valentine hears from Steve Smith and Mateen Cleaves.
Michigan State’s greats offer up a reminder of the Spartans’ standard — success in the month of March.
“It’s what you expect here,” Izzo said. “The mission is how do you live up to what the players have done before you.”
Added Valentine: “This is where Michigan State basketball has their history, and we want to keep the tradition going. We don’t want to be the ones that let the former players down.”
Committed to smart offense, tenacious defense and — most importantly — Michigan State’s tradition, these Spartans are back in the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in the last eight years. Their journey to this point was difficult, but that’s how Izzo likes it.
Everything Izzo does leading up to March is a test to get the most of his team when the postseason arrives. There’s no magic, as suggested — just a future Hall of Fame coach at work.
Beyond that, more important than Izzo’s tremendous legacy, there’s the support of Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, those who made Michigan State what it has become. The Spartans don’t want to disappoint the greats that came before them.
Michigan State was made for March.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.