Tom Izzo missed out on his top recruiting targets in the 2013 and 2014 classes. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — For two straight years, Tom Izzo swung for the fences.
And for two straight years, he collected a few singles — maybe a double — but came up short in his bid for the home run.
For the Michigan State basketball coach who has tirelessly pursued a second national championship to go with the one he captured in 2000, chasing the top recruits was the plan of attack for both the 2013 and 2014 classes. In both cases, the Spartans missed out on their targets.
In 2013, it was about one player for one opening — Jabari Parker. The Spartans were a finalist right up until Parker donned a Duke cap and headed to play for Mike Krzyzewski. In 2014, there was a much larger crop of potential Spartans, Cliff Alexander, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis among them. All considered Michigan State but ultimately ended up at other basketball powerhouses, including Duke, Kansas and Kentucky.
“We had two tough years,” Izzo said Wednesday, speaking to a group of sports editors at the Michigan High School Athletic Association building. “I guess that’s a bummer in some ways. Some of that was my fault, too. There were reasons we did what we did, there were educated reasons. It wasn’t like we were just pie in the sky, let’s go after this guy.”
The result, Izzo says, has been a new focus on the recruiting trail.
“We’ve kind of relooked at things like I’ve done a couple of times in my career,” he said. “Not to try to get a smaller guy, (but) just to know who you’re recruiting against, what you’re doing, and I kind of like the direction we’re heading right now. I think we could be really good next year and then down the road really, really good and that’s kind of the way we’re trying to do it.”
The “really good” next year includes a class of three players Michigan State landed after missing on the higher-recruited group. Included are incoming freshmen Lourawls Nairn, Javon Bess and Marvin Clark. Nairn is the most notable of the group, ranking as a four-star point guard who will likely see plenty of playing time in his first season.
It’s a group Izzo is already impressed with, even if the Spartans won’t have the preseason hype they had last season. Plenty will be expected of senior Branden Dawson and junior Denzel Valentine and senior Travis Trice have already been named captains.
“I’ve only been with my guys for two weeks and I uncharacteristically, optimistically feel good about my team,” Izzo said. “I like the energy. I think Denzel is gonna be a great, great leader. I think we’ve been lacking a little leadership. I think guys have played hard. I think I’ve got more shooters. I think right now I like where we are. Now a month from now I might not like it but I really have seen some things that I think we’re gonna be not only better than I thought we could be, but I like the direction we’re going again.”
And with a different focus on recruiting, it has led Izzo to be truly optimistic for what the Spartans could potentially be in 2015-16, possibly building toward the same type of expectations last year’s team had before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut in the East Regional final of the NCAA Tournament. Already on board are forward Deyonta Davis, rated a five-star prospect by ESPN.com, and three-star wing Kyle Ahrens. They will be joined by high-profile transfers Eron Harris from West Virginia and Bryn Forbes from Cleveland State.
At least one more scholarship will be open and Michigan State is after some talented players to fill out the class, including center Caleb Swanigan, a five-star prospect from Fort Wayne, Ind., and Jalen Brunson, a five-star point guard from Lincolnshire, Ill.
But as Izzo pointed out, the goal won’t just be the high-profile players.
“The problem is if you’re (only) trying to get 1 and 2, sometimes 3 and 4 is pretty good and sometimes they get better than 1 and 2,” Izzo said of how they rank players. “But you constantly hold out for 1 and 2. That’s where I think we’re making some different decisions now and we’re going to find guys that want to be here and maybe push the envelope a little bit more.”