'His program is the envy of the game': ESPN's Jay Bilas gushes over MSU's Tom Izzo

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Tom Izzo has never hidden his desire to win a second national championship.

There’s been times he’s said he needs it to validate his coaching career, joining a small group of coaches who have won more than one national title.

It’s the sort of approach that has pushed Izzo since the day he became Michigan State’s head coach. From the moment Jud Heathcote handed the reigns to a virtual unknown assistant from the U.P. of Michigan, Izzo has been hell bent on proving not only that he belongs, but that his program is among the best in the country.

Entering his 24th year, MSU head coach Tom Izzo sits on the bench during warmups before taking on Albion College in an exhibition game.

But even after winning it all in 2000, reaching a total of eight Final Fours and capturing 15 Big Ten regular-season or tournament titles, Izzo continually feels like he’s chasing college basketball’s best.

Well, at least on respected voice dismisses the notion Izzo hasn’t already done so.

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“I've said this in the past — he's not one of the best basketball coaches in the country, he’s one of best coaches in American sports,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Thursday during a teleconference previewing the season. “Tom's got this humility to him to where he'll say, ‘Well, we're not on the level of Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina or all that.’ And every time he says that I go, ‘Yes, you are.’

"Who else has been to eight Final Fours in the last 20 years? Wo else has done the things that Michigan State has done? Michigan State wears green but they are a blue blood and he is on the top level with any coach that's ever done this.”

When looking at the numbers, it’s hard to argue with Bilas.

Izzo has won 606 games in his career, including 288 Big Ten victories, second only to the 353 of Indiana’s Bobby Knight. He’s taken Michigan State to 22 straight NCAA Tournaments and has won 52 NCAA Tournament games, fifth all-time and fourth among active coaches.

The eight Final Four appearances are fifth all-time and they’re the most since 1996 when Izzo began his career that is now entering its 25th season leading the Spartans.

On Tuesday, Michigan State begins its journey of adding to Izzo’s resume as the No. 1 Spartans take on No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York.

It’s a marquee event and several of coaching’s other big names will be there, too. Duke and Mike Krzyzewski take on Kansas and Bill Self in the first game before MSU faces John Calipari’s Kentucky team in the nightcap.

It’s the third time the Spartans will be involved in a 1 vs. 2 game at the Champions Classic but first as the top-ranked team. They beat No. 1 Kentucky in 2013 but lost to No. 1 Duke in 2017. And regardless of how the opening night of the season plays out — and, for that matter, the entire season — Bilas is confident that what Izzo has built in his time at Michigan State is second to none.

“He's not sitting in the backseat of any car with college coaches in it, not one,” said Bilas, the former Duke player who will be on the call for the Kansas-Duke game. “His program is the envy of the game, especially the way he does it. I don't know a better guy and I know I don't know a better coach. He’s extraordinary and I wouldn't mind seeing him like, you know, take his take his right arm and put it over his left shoulder and pat himself on the back a little bit for what they've accomplished.”

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Michigan State’s meeting with Kentucky is just one of a handful of tough games in the early part of the season.

The Spartans travel to No. 12 Seton Hall on Nov. 14 to play in the Gavitt Games and then could see No. 3 Kansas in the Maui Invitational from Nov. 25-27.

The next game after returning from Hawaii is at home against No. 4 Duke on Dec. 3 for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

“I guess Tom decided not to schedule the Warriors,” Bilas joked. “He's always done this and that's one of the reasons he's one of the best and most respected coaches out there. A lot of coaches say we’ll play anyone, anywhere, anytime, and Tom actually does it. He knows his players like to play in those games.

"The fans like to see them and he likes to coach them. He's not afraid to get beat because he knows what comes from that.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau