Tom Izzo: 'We've got everything you need to go somewhere -- we got athletes, we got shooters, we're a good defensive team potentially.' (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing – You hear it often these days, and should prepare to hear it even more. Tom Izzo hears it too, and doesn’t mind saying it.
If healthy, the theory goes, Michigan State is the best team in the country and could win it all.
“I agree,” Izzo said. “That’s very cocky, very arrogant, very unlike me. But I love this team. We’ve got everything you need to go somewhere -- we got athletes, we got shooters, we’re a good defensive team potentially. We’ve got size, we’ve got subs, we’ve got a point guard that was playing at a fairly elite level. We got experience. And I think we’ve got a little hunger.”
If it sounds a bit like a pep talk, that’s because it is. Nearing the end of an arduous season in which the Spartans have been beaten up, there’s no time to be beaten down. Six of the team’s top seven players have missed a total of 29 games, and the ones who returned aren’t all the way back. Keith Appling has been a non-shooter with his ailing right wrist and Adreian Payne isn’t in top condition.
Branden Dawson is expected to return from his broken hand for Saturday’s game against Illinois, which would make Michigan State whole again. The injury impact is irrefutable, not that anyone in college basketball is mustering much sympathy. And while Izzo has discussed it to the point of practically annoying himself, it’s time to flip the story, as the calendar flips to March.
During a chat in his office Thursday, Izzo flashed the familiar fire, one day after his team’s Big Ten championship hopes took another body blow. He invited his players to his house Wednesday night to scout Illinois against Nebraska, but of course, the Michigan-Purdue game ran long, into overtime. After Glenn Robinson III’s shot hung on the rim and dropped in to beat the Boilermakers, the Wolverines maintained their one-game lead with three remaining.
Izzo knows mental repair is as important as physical repair right now, and that’s what he plans to do.
“I think (a Michigan loss) would’ve galvanized us and bonded us a little bit because now you got your second chance,” Izzo said. “But we’re regrouping this week, and we got no excuses. I do think we have a legitimate shot (at the national title). What I don’t know is, if Keith isn’t better than what he was, it’s gonna be hard.”
At this stage, Izzo doesn’t think he can rest Appling because the wrist won’t totally heal anyhow, and it’s just as likely to get bumped in practice as in games. Should Appling have spent more time on the sideline earlier? Definitely debatable, and Izzo admits he’s struggled with the season-long issue.
Yet the Spartans are 22-6, still capable of landing a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament and still capable of at least reaching the Final Four. We have to see how Dawson looks and how Appling responds before tabbing the Spartans any kind of favorites, but somewhat surprisingly, they sport the third-best odds to win it all. Vegas Insider lists Michigan State at 8-1, behind only Florida and Kansas, ahead of Syracuse, Duke, Arizona, Louisville, and yes, Michigan.
Since the Spartans won the national championship in 2000 and brought back an outstanding team in 2001, this has been called Izzo’s best chance at a second title. It still could be, because college basketball isn’t exactly loaded with super-powers this season.
If it’s his best chance, he won’t say it’s his last best chance. Izzo, 59, is in his 19th season, and for all his concerns about outside issues – social media, recruiting, etc. – he often goes through these tough stretches. It wasn’t long ago he was tempted to jump to the NBA’s Cavaliers, and there’s no doubt the stress of the job is taxing. But this isn’t just a quest to snip the nets one more time and bid farewell.
“If I had my dream, would I go out like Al McGuire?” Izzo said, referencing the Marquette coach won the title in 1977 and retired to TV. “Yeah, win a championship, sayonara. But not right now. I have five more good years in me, no question. For some reason, I’m reenergized this year. I think I’d want to win another one. I’m gonna chase (Mike) Krzyzewski until I’m done.”
Izzo is still chasing, and still being chased. The Big Ten is fiercely competitive and the days of passive resistance in Ann Arbor are over, with John Beilein winning six of the past eight meetings. Michigan made it to the championship game last season and is poised to win the Big Ten without the injured Mitch McGary.
The shooting of Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert makes the Wolverines dangerous again, even if oddsmakers like the Spartans’ NCAA chances better. Michigan State has the famous March pedigree, and seniors Payne and Appling are desperate to avoid becoming the first four-year players recruited by Izzo not to reach a Final Four.
That’s the ol’ hunger issue, and after a week in which Michigan State lost to its rival, then watched Michigan’s huge rally against Purdue, self-pity is not an option.
“I don’t feel threatened by Michigan’s success,” Izzo said. “I’ve been here when they were good, so it was just a matter of time. Some fans got a little antsy (after the Michigan loss), and people get up for us. They know we’re a little wounded, there’s a little blood in the water. I’m not trying to make excuses, I’m just trying to move forward.”
They have a shot, and whether it’s the best one or the last one or merely the next one, it’s still there -- slightly diminished but not damaged beyond repair.