Wojo: Izzo still pushing No. 1 Spartans to be great

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The reminders are everywhere. They hang from the rafters at the Breslin Center, they arrive in calls and texts from former players, they’re charted in the record books.

Tom Izzo has more reminders than ever, more examples of what made his program elite and why it endures. Everyone knows the basic tenets of defense and toughness, but it’s more striking when you see it in so many places.

There’s Michigan State’s football team, marching to its own final four, with Izzo and Mark Dantonio comparing notes along the way. Here comes the 2000 national championship basketball team, to be honored tonight with Florida in town. That group led by the “Flintstones” provided emphatic confirmation Izzo’s style would work at the highest level. Fifteen years and five more Final Fours later, further confirmation isn’t mandatory, but craved as manically as ever.

The 10-0 Spartans are ranked No. 1, and Izzo might have his deepest batch of shooters ever. He raves about his team’s unselfishness and chemistry, so naturally, here he was at practice, ordering up a fierce session of the War Drill, the rebounding exercise that was legendary years ago. The football gear stays stowed now, but Izzo knows when a healthy reminder is needed.

Like, for instance, when you begin the season ranked 13th and already have risen to No. 1.

“That scares me a little bit, because I just wonder how they’ll handle everything,” Izzo said. “Thank God for our juniors and seniors, like Denzel Valentine, who’s been through Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, a Final Four. They’ve seen all the football things because I make sure they’re involved in that. I think they’re prepared to handle it, but it’ll be different. And trust me, Florida’s good.”

Always back to the game, to the next test of his team’s mettle. That’s one of the reasons Izzo cherishes his connection with Dantonio, who preaches the same things. That’s why the 2000 Spartans mean so much, and their return coincides nicely with the current team’s ascent.

Different era

There hasn’t been this much hoopla around Michigan State maybe in forever, with legitimate national title aspirations in football and basketball. But no matter how much success is celebrated, or how much more is possible, the Spartans never feel as if they’ve arrived, something Izzo happily hammers, in case anyone forgets.

“I think it’s still a privilege to be ranked No. 1, but I don’t think we’re dumb enough to figure we’re that good,” Izzo said. “I think we could be third in our league right now (behind Maryland and Purdue). We’ve got a shot to be good , but a lot of things have to happen.”

Just like during that extraordinary run from 1998-2001, when the Flintstones — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Antonio Smith — instilled the Flint-tough mindset. Ultimately, they’d produce four Big Ten championships and three Final Fours. Michigan State won every NCAA Tournament game in 2000 by double digits, capped by the 89-76 victory over Florida.

Thirteen of the 15 team members will be back Saturday night, with only Adam Ballinger (playing in Australia) and Al Anagonye (playing in Turkey) absent. It’s a celebration wrapped around a history lesson.

“It was interesting to see when they were putting together the highlights, I realized how soft we are compared to back then,” Izzo said. “Some of it’s by necessity (tighter officiating), and some of it’s not. I have an incredible appreciation for how that team sustained a grinding, athletic, fastbreaking, tough defense. They kind of stood for everything the program’s been built on. It reminds me how you gotta play. We can’t be as bruising as they were, but we gotta be more bruising than we’ve been.”

That was the point of Thursday’s practice, loud and spirited and more competitive than the 78-35 victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore the night before. Players said it was their toughest practice in a while, and perhaps the timing wasn’t an accident.

Sophomore guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr. was 5 when the Spartans won it all. But he knows.

“I’ve watched the videos, I know how they played,” Nairn said. “They played hard, they played together, they played smart. And you could tell they were having fun out there.”

These Spartans have those same qualities, without quite the size or physical force. They’ve already beaten Kansas and Louisville, and something special certainly seems possible. Valentine and Nairn provide two-headed leadership, and Valentine looks like an All-American, averaging nearly a triple-double — 18.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.7 assists.

The Spartans are outrebounding opponents by an average of 17 per game, but Izzo isn’t buying that number. He figures when 6-foot-9 Gavin Schilling returns from his turf-toe injury, the Spartans can get back to banging harder.

Similar mind-sets

Izzo and Dantonio talk all the time, and exchange valuable insight because both are fighting for the same goals in the same way. In fact, when Izzo discusses a team, you sometimes lose track if it’s basketball or football.

“We can’t forget what got us here,” Izzo said. “We weren’t as good defensively for a little while — we had all those defensive backs hurt — and when we went down to Ohio State, what won the game for us? Our defense. And we (basketball) haven’t been quite as good defensively either. In the end, I think that’s still what’s gonna do it for us.”

Izzo’s philosophy hasn’t changed since it was explicitly validated 15 years ago. It began out of necessity, when his early teams struggled to shoot. So Izzo sent them to the boards and demanded defense, and Cleaves and company proved it worked.

“It kind of grew as it went, and those guys took it to another level,” Izzo said. “We were tenacious at the guards defensively. Sometimes we’re not as tenacious with our guards now because they’re better shooters, and it’s un-American to do both. If our guys become better defensively, that’s how you become special.”

If they need to be reminded how it works, they can look up or look back. Or they can look just about anywhere on Michigan State’s campus these days.

Florida at Michigan State

Tip-off: Saturday, 6 p.m., Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760

Records: Florida 6-2; No. 1 Michigan State 10-0

Notable: The 2000 national title team will be honored at halftime of the first meeting between Florida and MSU since 2009. … Florida is led by first-year coach Mike White, who took over after Billy Donovan left for the NBA. … Fifth-year senior Dorian Finney-Smith averages 14 points and 8.6 rebounds a game.