Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks Big Ten awards and looking forward to this week's conference tournament. The Detroit News
East Lansing — Tom Izzo has come around on the Big Ten tournament.
No, the Michigan State coach still does not put more value on winning a three- to four-day event over proving you’re the best team over the course of an entire season, but there are positives to the tournament the Spartans have won six times, more than any other team in the Big Ten.
Problems can be fixed, a rotation can be ironed out, young players can get used to the one-and-done approach to the postseason and there’s always a shot at winning another championship.
On top of that, a team with Final Four aspirations can continue to build momentum, much like the Spartans did last season when they won three games in three days to capture the Big Ten tournament title a week after they locked up a share of the regular-season championship. Three weeks later, they were in the Final Four.
Another run could begin this week when the Big Ten convenes at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis with the second-seeded Spartans (22-9) opening at 6:30 p.m. on Friday against the winner of Thursday’s matchup between No. 10 Purdue and No. 7 Ohio State.
“It’s still not where the ACC and Big East (tournaments are),” Izzo said. “I think that they look at their conference tournament as bigger than their regular season. I hope ours never gets to that because I still think being able to do something over 20 games is better than over three days.
“But there is value in it. When you're a poor team like we were early, I wanted to just have a chance. When you're one of the better teams, you look at it sometimes like nothing can come out of this but bad. I went through that stage, but now I’m kind of like, there's value in it and I can use it to my advantage.”
In the early days of the Big Ten tournament, Izzo gained the reputation as a coach that didn’t care about the event. It was odd, considering the Spartans won the tournament in two of the first three years. But early exits over the next 10 seasons helped perpetuate the belief, something that only began to change in 2012. Since then, the Spartans have reached the championship game five times, winning four titles.
“I think anytime you're playing in a tournament,” said Izzo, “learning how to win is more valuable than anything you do. I think playing well is going to be important.”
That value was clear in at least three of the seasons Michigan State reached the conference tournament title game. After beating Michigan in 2014, the Spartans reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and made the Final Four in next season after losing to Wisconsin in the 2015 Big Ten title game. Last season’s win over Michigan in the conference championship game preceded another trip to the Final Four.
Of course, there’s always the 2016 team that rolled through the Big Ten tournament then lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State.
That was a year many believed a win in the conference tournament would vault Michigan State to a 1-seed. It didn’t happen and the Spartans were upset by an under-seeded 15. Last season, the same scenario existed and Michigan State was a 2-seed in the same region with No. 1 overall seed Duke.
Of course, the Spartans went on to beat Duke in the regional championship game, leading Izzo to not put a whole lot of belief in the idea that a good week in Indianapolis will affect his team’s standing in the NCAA Tournament.
“Seeding, that was over like eight years ago,” Izzo said. “I do not think we get any advantage playing Sunday. But then again, maybe we get no disadvantage playing Sunday where maybe if we're in the finals and lost, maybe we'd move down some.
“So I don't worry about the seedings anymore. The beauty of it is the way college basketball has gone the last couple years, I'm not sure the seedings matter. I mean, it'd be nice to be in the Midwest if that's part of the seeding, but the parity is so ridiculous right now and you're gonna have to win games to move on each weekend and you're gonna have to win games to get to a Final Four.”
The winning might as well start now, Izzo believes. When it’s win or go home, the pressure is ratcheted up and it will be amplified this season as Izzo believes just about any team outside of Northwestern and Nebraska could win the championship.
“I think when you get to the quarters and semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, you can be playing teams as good as any in the NCAA Tournament,” Izzo said. “The Thursday games are going to be better than a lot of games in the NCAA Tournament, and that's a tribute to the Big Ten in general, and the coaches in it.”
It should make for a wild few days in Indy, and right now, there’s no telling how long Michigan State or any other team will be around for it. Izzo has seen virtually every scenario play out, so his focus is simply on getting his team better.
That will put them in position to have the tournament run they’re really looking for.
“I think as you get older you quit analyzing everything you realize that you just got to win games,” Izzo said, “and you’ve got to build. Play games and win games, and anytime you're playing in one-and- done, I think you're learning something."
Big Ten tournament
Here is the schedule for the 2020 Big Ten men's basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. All games on BTN unless noted.
►No. 12 Minnesota vs. No. 13 Northwestern, 6
►No. 11 Indiana vs. No. 14 Nebraska, 8:30
►No. 8 Rutgers vs. No. 9 Michigan, noon
►No. 5 Iowa vs. Minnesota-Northwestern winner, 2:30
►No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Purdue, 6:30
►No. 6 Penn State vs. Indiana-Nebraska winner, 9
►No. 1 Wisconsin vs. Rutgers-Michigan winner, noon
►No. 4 Illinois vs. Iowa-Minnesota/Northwestern winner, 2:30
►No. 2 Michigan State vs. Ohio State-Purdue winner, 6:30
►No. 3 Maryland vs. Penn State-Indiana/Nebraska winner, 9
►Semifinals, 1 and 3:30 (CBS)
►Final, 3:30 (CBS)