St. Louis — Last weekend in a cramped locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Tom Izzo was struggling with how to approach his team.
Michigan State had just beaten Maryland, 64-61, to earn a spot in the Big Ten tournament championship game, but Izzo wasn’t exactly thrilled with everything he saw on the court.
That’s when he asked them, did they want him to lay off, congratulate them, or none of the above?
“I said, ‘You want me to pat you on the back, you want me to chew you out, you want me to find a happy medium?’ ” Izzo said. “ ‘What do you guys want?’ ”
The response came quickly, and there’s no surprise who it came from.
“Denzel says, ‘Whatever it takes to win a championship. It doesn’t matter, whatever it takes to win a championship,’ ” Izzo said.
As second-seeded Michigan State prepares to play No. 15 Middle Tennessee Friday in the Midwest Regional, it brings along that attitude.
It’s the attitude adopted by Denzel Valentine and senior Matt Costello the moment Michigan State lost to Duke in last season’s Final Four. Since that day, there has been one goal: win a national championship.
“I came up short two years in row and I’m tired of coming up short,” Valentine said. “I want to go ahead and win this thing.”
It’s a no-nonsense approach born out of a regional final loss to eventual champion Connecticut two years ago followed by last year’s exit.
And if the Spartans win what would be Izzo’s second title, the statement from Valentine will take its place among the iconic moments of Izzo’s 19-year run in the NCAA Tournament.
There’s Mateen Cleaves calling out his teammate and childhood friend Morris Peterson in a locker room at The Palace during the 2000 title run.
There’s Izzo smashing a game tape with a hammer before the 2005 Tournament that ended with a march to the Final Four.
There’s last year when Izzo told his team just before it took the court against Louisville in the regional final that if they put in two hours of work they’d have a lifetime of memories.
And now there’s Valentine’s comment.
“I think that was a hell of a statement by a 22-year-old kid,” Izzo said. “I’ve got a ton of respect for that statement. So maybe someday a few years from now that’ll be in the locker room. ... That will be one of those cliché lines that I didn’t use, he used, and I thought it was outstanding.”
It’s not hard to understand why Valentine, a candidate for player of the year, and Costello have gotten to the point where it’s national championship or bust. There’s really nothing else for them to accomplish.
They’ve won the Big Ten twice, reached the Sweet 16 as freshmen, the Elite Eight as sophomores and the Final Four as juniors.
That leaves one logical next step.
“That was our goal when we came here, to win a national championship,” Costello said. “We’ve had our opportunities ... and (messed) it up. We want to go out as one of the best classes, if not the best class, in school history. To do that we’ve got to win a national championship.”
And that means the Spartans don’t have a problem with Izzo getting on them. While teams might have had players who have wilted under the pressure, this one has thrived.
After Michigan State ended the regular season with a win at home over Ohio State, the afterglow hardly lasted. By Monday, Izzo put the Spartans through one of their toughest practices.
“With this team, I just felt like I can get on my best player,” Izzo said. “I can do it every day if I wanted to. I can do it every day if I needed to. When you have that, that makes it so much easier for the rest of the guys.”
It hasn’t been just this week, either. Izzo has been talking to Valentine and Costello for several weeks about preparing for this run.
And when Valentine told his coach to keep pushing, Izzo realized he was doing it right.
“That minute in the locker room when Denzel says you do whatever you’ve got to do, that means they grew,” Izzo said. “That means they understood it. That means they get it.
“I’d like to live my life a little bit, too. But when you’re trying to get to the top of that pyramid, when only one team is left standing, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”