Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau preview Michigan State's game against Texas Tech in the Final Four. The Detroit News
Minneapolis — Redemption isn’t the right word. Neither is vindication. Tom Izzo would prefer not to offer a label, because he’s not really sure what this is, or how it happened.
The seeds were planted a year ago in the disappointment of a soiled season. If Izzo had walked away from his Michigan State powerhouse amid the turmoil, no one would have been shocked. But instead of wallowing in despair, something remarkable grew.
It’s been a long journey — from there to here, to the Final Four — that seemed destined to derail with injuries, and instead became something special. Along the way, Izzo’s program toughened even more, and so did he.
“Did it change me?” Izzo said. “It probably hardened me a little bit. But it made me more compassionate, too.”
His program now stands at the top step of the elite ladder, the only true blueblood here, alongside newcomers Texas Tech, Virginia and Auburn. The blue-collar Spartans say they don’t care about the blueblood tag, but they’re being modest. This is their eighth Final Four in 21 years, most in the nation, and 22nd straight year in the Tournament, third-longest streak in the nation. If they beat Texas Tech Saturday night, and win the national championship Monday night, it’d be the program’s third title, tying Kansas and Villanova for seventh all-time.
A championship also would be Izzo’s second, lifting him into exclusive company, joining 15 coaches in history with multiple titles. No, he won’t reach Mike Krzyzewski’s five, but there’s a consistency at Michigan State that deserves to be celebrated. This is the Spartans’ second Final Four in five years; Duke has two in 15 years.
“I do worry about validating myself and my program and my team,” Izzo said, standing outside the practice court at Breslin Center. “I want to be considered one of the five or six best programs in the country, because in 20 years, we have been. You know, (Jay) Bilas is always on me saying, ‘If you don’t think your program’s as good as Duke and Kentucky,’ it’s not gonna be. There’s a little bit of truth to that. You gotta be a little cocky, a little arrogant, a little egotistical.”
If possible, the past year softened and hardened Izzo at the same time. As he sat on the Final Four dais Thursday, fielding positive questions from scores of media members, last season seemed a long time ago. We’re talking about the basketball part of it, not the Larry Nassar scandal that didn’t involve his program but affected everyone on the Michigan State campus.
The Spartans were in a fog when the season ended, beaten in Little Caesars Arena by Syracuse 55-53. With two lottery picks — Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges — Michigan State couldn’t escape the first weekend of the Tournament for the third straight year.
Michigan State's Aaron Henry, Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward talk about facing Texas Tech in the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Some questioned Izzo’s hard-grinding style, and whether it meshed with five-star players. Some wondered if the toll, at 64, was wearing him down. The questions were understandable, although at times overblown. No matter how you view Izzo’s tactics, he’s developed a bond and a culture that players embrace. And this team, perhaps because of the adversity, embraced it more than ever.
“He went through a lot, and this year was really emotional for him, really big for him,” Cassius Winston said. “He let us help him, he didn’t try to do it by himself. We’ve been doing it together, changing the narrative about Michigan State. This is what it is — we got a good group of guys here, we do a lot of good things, we care for a lot of people, we care for each other.”
Those are not empty words. From the thoughtfulness of Winston, to the earnestness of Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman, to the geniality of Matt McQuaid and others, it’s as close-knit and enjoyable a group as you’ll ever be around. They use the word “connected” so often, it’s not hard to connect the dots.
From despair came determination. When Joshua Langford was lost for the season with a broken foot, McQuaid and Aaron Henry stepped up. When Nick Ward injured his hand, Tillman took over, and has blossomed into one of the most dependable defenders and rebounders. He, too, was motivated by last season, when his role was limited, and he followed the cue of his head coach.
“Coach Iz was extremely driven,” said Tillman, a 6-foot-8 sophomore. “He was like, OK, I’m done not making it past the first weekend. He was different, too. At the beginning of the summer, funny as it is, he was really loose, really relaxed. I’m thinking, he’s going to come after it really hard and be really aggressive. I think he actually went on vacations and stuff like that.”
There was a realization that you can’t control the outside noise, and rather than rail against it, listen for the lessons. Izzo struggled with how to field questions about his program and incidents from the past, and he still does. That doesn’t mean he minimizes anything, just that he has the resolve to push on.
“I do care what other people think, and once in a while it hits home,” Izzo said. “But I’m not so angered by it like I used to be. Like the Michigan thing — I used to hate them. Now I don’t like them, and that’s a big difference to me. Like losing to Middle Tennessee State (in the first round in 2016), when everybody was saying we looked past them. I felt so bad for those kids because they were wired in and it just happened. It made me realize I can’t control everything.”
Redemption is a fair term, even though Izzo doesn’t want to say it. The Spartans seemingly were bypassed by the Wolverines, who reached the title game a year ago. Then Michigan State beat them three times this year, won the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships and vanquished Duke in the regional final.
Now the Spartans are slight favorites over another tough-minded team, Texas Tech, and the chance to match the 2000 national champs is as good as it’s ever been. In Izzo’s seven previous Final Fours, he reached the title game twice — beating Florida in 2000, losing to North Carolina in 2009.
That gnaws at him, although the past few years have provided perspective.
“There was no question there were points where I thought, why would he stick with this?” assistant Dane Fife said. “Nowadays you see so many people just give in. It makes me think this is not about him. He’s not a guy that cares about having his name on the court or a statue. But he cares about the well-being of something that’s given him so much, the program.”
Izzo hasn’t collected the array of stars that other coaches have, but it hasn’t always worked out for Duke, or Kentucky, or Kansas. It didn’t work out when Izzo had Bridges and Jackson either, and in their absence, players realized they couldn’t rely on one or two guys.
Winston says it again and again, that it’s not all him. Sure, he takes over at times, but the Spartans are back because they’re back to needing each other, back from a brink no one saw coming.
“I do have great guys, and I’ve got great culture that’s been developed over years,” Izzo said. “I think these guys believe in each other, trust each other and want to win for each other. It’s not, I want to win to get to the NBA. They are honestly happy no matter who’s the star. You can’t say that about all teams.”
You can say a lot about this team, whether it’s redeemed or vindicated or validated. The culture was strong enough to endure, which isn’t a surprise. Sometimes it’s not about where you go, but how.