Tom Izzo proves to be college basketball's Mr. March

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Syracuse, N.Y. — On Feb. 7, Michigan State handed away a home game to Illinois.

The Spartans were 15-8 and firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Tom Izzo was fuming, and winning more than a game in a row seemed like a stretch. Any notion of a deep Tournament run seemed laughable.

Yet, with Izzo on the sidelines, nothing is ever out of reach.

Izzo has proven, yet again, getting his team to peak at the end of the year is what matters most — because he's done it again.

Michigan State won six of its final eight during the regular season and finished tied for third in the Big Ten before coming within minutes of knocking off Wisconsin in the conference tournament title game. And it hasn't slowed since.

And now, as Michigan State prepares to face Oklahoma in the East Regional semifinals tonight at the Carrier Dome, no one is overlooking the Spartans.

Izzo is again providing his magic touch in March.

"He's won more games there probably in the last decade than anyone else has, certainly in the Tournament," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. "His teams always play well. He's got that winning culture. When you get that culture that he helped develop, Tom has taken it to another level clearly."

That level has resulted in ...

■ A 13th appearance in the Sweet 16 under Izzo — and seventh in eight years.

■ The 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

■ A 20-4 record for Izzo in the second game of a Tournament weekend.

It's quite the jump from the team that was struggling in early February, but it's a consistent pattern for Izzo.

"Whatever you saw in November, his players will be better when you see them in March," former Maryland coach Gary Williams told the Washington Post. "A lot of teams, whatever they are when you get to January, that's what you get. Izzo's teams just keep improving."

In it together

This one needed to do plenty of that after losing Gary Harris and Adreian Payne to the NBA from last year's team that lost in the Elite Eight.

But Izzo has worked with all types of teams in March.

Last year's team, he often said, was as talented as his national championship team of 2000 and the 2009 squad that reached the title game.

He's also had deep runs with less talented teams, coming a game shy of the Final Four in 2003 and reaching the Final Four in 2005 and 2010.

To do that this year, he'll need some more magic, but will be doing it with a team unique in the fact it is close as any Izzo has had.

That, Izzo believes, can make up for some shortcomings.

"Sometimes that happens because maybe a team is not quite as talented," Izzo said. "I think that's what you do, you learn to rely on each other. This team realizes that it needs each other and that doesn't always happen. Everyone thinks they can do their own thing, and this team understands they need the guy next to them.

"That has been fun to coach. I haven't had a lot of teams at this level of chemistry, camaraderie and togetherness. ... We've always been lucky here to have a lot of great relationships. But this one, player to player, is at another level."

It doesn't mean this Michigan State team doesn't have players.

Branden Dawson has been outstanding during the postseason, and Travis Trice is playing as well as he has all season.

Kruger also sees a confidence in the Spartans, one that they believe stems from their camaraderie.

"It's great value in that culture to maybe help you win games that you perhaps wouldn't otherwise," Kruger said. "The accomplishments the players have, the swagger that they play with, all that comes as a result of what Tom has done there and the good players that he's had.

"They're probably playing as well as anyone in the country over the last month. I really think they've peaked at the right time, as his clubs often do. They seem to be playing with great confidence, that swagger that his clubs oftentimes do, and getting great results."

March mindset

A cohesive team playing with great confidence and a coach who knows this time of year will be on full display at the Carrier Dome tonight.

And win or lose, it seems unlikely the personality of the Michigan State team will change anytime soon.

Some of that is because of the players, but as much or more is because of Izzo.

"He's got good players and he certainly has them playing so hard and you just see it," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said last week before being eliminated by Michigan State. "His track record speaks for itself … the mindset of that program makes them so effective come this time of the year."

Michigan's State's Sweet 16 game in the East Region against Oklahoma will begin at 10:07 p.m. Friday and will be televised by TBS and carried by WJR-AM (760).