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Wojo: Wipe slate clean — It's Tournament time

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It's that time of year again, when basketball fans scan their brackets, mull their picks and ask the proverbial question: OK, who are these guys?

It's not your fault if you don't know. For some, the college basketball season starts today and ends April 6. That's the great attraction of the NCAA Tournament, capable of celebrating the sport's virtues and hiding its ills at the same time.

Everyone dives into the rejuvenating waters of March. Tom Izzo has dived in 18 straight years, and knows the healing properties as well as anyone. Seasons are saved, careers are made, coaches get paid. The game has changed, not necessarily for the good, but during a trying season, Izzo has shown he can change with it.

"I'm invigorated by this," Izzo said as Michigan State prepared to face Georgia on Friday. "I think I'll be a better coach for going through this season. … We're not mega-talented, not even close, but if you can do it a different way, it teaches a different lesson. You gotta get great players, and I still want great players. But I do want to have fun in this. And you can win a lot of ways if you get everybody on the same page."

Izzo is still leafing through pages, still adopting the role of feisty underdog after all these years. The difference is, everyone is an underdog in this Tournament, featuring Evil Stepmother Kentucky and 63 serfs. In a sport that has seen TV ratings erode the past 20 years, the Tournament endures, and the storyline of unbeaten Kentucky might help more than it hurts.

Everyone loves charting the path to perfection, and rooting for it to be wrecked. But this is not just about the Wildcats and John Calipari, with their one- and two-year stars. They use the system as presently constructed and make no apologies for it, and Izzo doesn't rail against it.

This is about finding the balance between perfection and perception, an unending search.

"I still think the game is in a little bit of trouble," Izzo said. "We've got some concerns -- the AAU thing, the one-and-done thing, the transfers. Is winning as important to players? Are people coming to win a championship, or are they coming just to use it as a stepping stone, which might be OK. We use college as a stepping stone for the regular Joe."

Taking stock

The sport's nasty underbelly used to make Izzo manically restless, wondering if touted players could set aside individual goals. Now his own NBA dalliances are in the past, and Izzo is energized by change from within. Even at 60, he evolved as a coach, shaping a less-talented group that once seemed in danger of missing the Tournament.

Next season, with Muskegon All-American Deyonta Davis coming in, Michigan State might out-talent opponents again. This group is more about seasoning, and Izzo and his staff have developed it nicely. Senior Travis Trice has grown from a scrawny under-recruited kid into the team's leading scorer. Denzel Valentine has started to harness his unique skills, although he still commits the occasional gaffe. When fully charged, senior Branden Dawson provides power and athleticism and led the Big Ten in rebounding.

Izzo adjusted, recognizing the Spartans had to win by other means. Michigan State blew games with its inexplicably poor free-throw shooting (.633, 330th in the nation), and who could have predicted that? But this is the second most-prolific 3-point shooting team in his 20 seasons. The offense is surprisingly efficient, with the Spartans fourth in the nation in assists.

Izzo long has cherished the constants of defense and rebounding, and his 42-16 Tournament record reflects it. Shooting is a less-predictable variable, which is why this is a less-predictable team. It could lose to Georgia, it could win a few games. That doesn't make it less satisfying to coach.

"You know what drives me?" Izzo said. "I swear to you, this isn't (BS). I'm driven by the idea that when a player leaves here, he'll leave with something he'll never forget. Last year's team didn't make it to the Final Four, but we won the Big Ten tournament and made a helluva run in the NCAA Tournament. This year's team has been through more hell than any of them, and that's why (a Big Ten tournament title) would've meant a little bit more."

Izzo invests in his teams emotionally and laments the transitory nature of the game, from the one-and-done recruits to the loose transfer rules that allow players to jump. He plays it, too — Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State, has been a valuable addition — but is it good for the sport? Kentucky has lost freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle and James Young to the first round of the past few NBA drafts, and has more possible first-year departures — Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker.

Clear target

It's harder and harder for fans to know who, or what, they're watching. At Tournament time, the drama overshadows everything, producing a 14-year, $11 billion TV contract even as ratings dipped from 9.4 in 1993 to 6.7 in 2013.

Izzo points out college football now pushes deeper into January and the NFL pushes into February, diverting attention from college basketball. The sport has other issues, from weak scheduling to inconsistent officiating to late-game free-throw and timeout parades. Izzo frets about it, but if he can't change it, he'll adapt. This year's team is an example of that, just as Kentucky is the prevailing example of excess, the most-prohibitive favorite in the history of the Tournament.

"I've never seen anything like it, ever," Izzo said. "(Kentucky) learned to play together and now they've gotten better as a team. But it is the NCAA Tournament. March brings some funny things, positively or negatively."

In the cleansing pool of the Tournament, the negative recedes and the positive emerges. And somehow, everything seems fresh all over again.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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