Spartans’ eyes on the big prize: National championship

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Chicago — Last April in Indianapolis, as one of Tom Izzo’s more unlikely Final Four teams faced Duke in the semifinals, it all started to become clear.

Getting to the Final Four is great, and Izzo has been to his share. Last season gave the Michigan State coach his seventh, good for fourth in history behind Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden and Dean Smith.

But as the Spartans watched a fast start — they led 14-6 in the first half — slip away and turn into an 81-61 defeat, the realization that coming close isn’t quite good enough began to set in.

Michigan State won the national championship in 2000 and has been to five Final Fours since. None have delivered that second title Izzo covets, and only once, in 2009, did Michigan State reach the final.

“It is starting to wear on me that I can get there but can’t win another one,” Izzo said Thursday at Big Ten media day. “That is why the new motto is that we’ve got to take it to another level. It’s like the 3.5 student that wants to be a 4-point student. We can have setbacks a little bit in basketball, but we can’t have many. You’re not losing three or four games and winning the Big Ten.

“We’ve got to take it to another level. That is motivation for me. That is exciting for me.”

The beauty for Izzo is that, while he understood getting to the Final Four is no longer enough, his team was coming to that realization at the same time.

Last season, the Spartans broke every huddle by yelling, “Indy,” the site of the Final Four. This year, it’s a shortened version of national championship.

“That’s all we’re talking about,” senior captain Matt Costello said. “We break every huddle with, ‘Natty.’ That’s what we’ve got to do.

“It will kind of be a letdown if we don’t. We’ve been to enough Final Fours. Coach has been to enough Final Fours. We need a national championship.”

And watching a team the Spartans thought they had a good chance to beat win the title made the push this offseason more crucial.

“We watched the national championship game and it (was a bummer) because we were up on them and knew we could beat them,” senior shooting guard Denzel Valentine said. “To think they won the national championship was like, ‘Dang, that could have been us.’

“It could be us if we just work on it and are motivated.”

There has been no problem with motivation.

“Every morning when I come in the building at 7, Tum Tum (Lourawls Nairn) and Javon Bess are in there,” Izzo said. “And when I leave at night, Zel (Valentine) and Eron (Harris) and Bryn (Forbes) are in there.

“I’ve gotta throw guys out of the gym. There’s always seven or eight of them in there, and that’s a good problem to have.”

Figuring out how he’ll use those players will be Izzo’s biggest challenge.

He’s been changing lineups every two days during practice, trying to get a feel for the best combinations. With sophomore forward Marvin Clark out with a broken foot, it has forced Bess to play more at power forward, creating a smaller lineup. But Izzo can go big, too, by putting freshman Deyonta Davis at power forward and moving Valentine to point guard.

Izzo also called it his best shooting team, as Valentine, Forbes and Harris all have the ability to score in bunches while freshman Matt McQuaid has been impressive from the perimeter.

“I just think we’ve got a lot of players that can play different,” Valentine said. “We have a lot of shooters, a lot of scorers that can do a lot of different things.”

Getting more out of Costello and junior Gavin Schilling at center will be important as well if the Spartans are to contend for the title.

There will be challenges, including nonconference meetings against Kansas, Louisville and Florida as well as the Big Ten slate.

A month from the opener, however, Izzo has his team in good position.

“We’ve got a really good team,” Izzo said. “It’s better than I thought it would be. It’s the best shooting team. We’ve got depth and we’ve got athletes. We have to get through some land mines early that will give us an impression one way or another and we understand that.

“But I like our chances to get better.”