East Lansing — Tom Izzo desperately wants to be mad at someone, or something. He wants to know what went wrong, what the Spartans could have done differently. He frets as he re-watches the game again and again, and he keeps reaching the same conclusion.
Cool and cruel. That’s how Izzo described the NCAA Tournament in the immediate aftermath of Michigan State’s 90-81 loss to Middle Tennessee. Four days later, he has no other explanation. The tournament he loves does this to teams and coaches, even the best of them. Even, now, to Izzo.
This is uncharted ground for Izzo, recapping the end of a season before the Sweet 16 even begins. The Spartans have lost in the first round before — five times in 21 seasons under Izzo — but never like this, never as a 2 seed against a 15. And from this uncharted setting, Izzo will enter another, replacing three senior starters with the best recruiting class of his career, radically changing the dynamics of his team.
Izzo wouldn’t mind talking about touted incoming freshmen Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, a consensus top-three class. But he said he can’t, not yet. First, he has to make sure he didn’t miss anything, any sign of what was about to happen. He adamantly defended his players Tuesday, starting with Denzel Valentine, gave ample credit to Middle Tennessee, and suggested any blame should be directed at himself.
It was a low-key therapy session that lasted more than an hour. Speaking bluntly, with occasional bursts of gallows humor, Izzo kept returning to the mantra that defines the Tournament. It’s the cherished notion that for one game, one incomprehensible 40-minute stretch, any team is capable of doing things it hasn’t done, good or bad.
“I didn’t curl up and die,” Izzo said. “I tried to write down things each day I thought I could improve on. Every time I did, I went back and watched the film and said, ‘would I have changed that?’ I never come up with a yes very often. I think what’s hardest for Spartan nation and for the coaches is, if there were some blatant things you did wrong, you’d at least feel better about it. If I smoked cigarettes every day and I got lung cancer, I at least could justify it. I can’t justify it.”
He’s heard every complaint and every theory. The Spartans needed to mix in a zone defense. They overlooked the Blue Raiders. Hey, what about a timeout during that blistering stretch when Middle Tennessee raced to a 15-2 lead?
Fair questions and criticisms, and Izzo pondered them all. Based on practices and team meetings, he didn’t think the Spartans overlooked their opponent. Of course, it can be hard to detect complacency when you’re a heavy favorite, and even harder to judge how the heavy underdog will react.
None of that fully explains one of the most shocking upsets in NCAA Tournament history. The Spartans actually shot well, but the Blue Raiders were simply better, better than their norm. They shot 56 percent, 58 from 3-point range. (During their 24-9 regular season, they were at 45 and 40 percent)
Michigan State’s defense — second in the nation in shooting percentage — was staggered, no doubt. It clearly wasn’t as dominant and athletic as the numbers suggested, susceptible to dribble drives. What makes this so confusing for Izzo is that he’s never quite experienced it, and now understands what he thought he already knew.
“The one thing I learned that maybe can help our team is, unfortunately, you and me aren’t any different than an 18-year-old player in this respect — we sometimes don’t do what we should do until we’re punched right in the mouth,” Izzo said. “Do we not exercise enough until somebody has a heart attack? I’m getting off the wall here, but this is what you do when you go through something like this. You think of everything you do in life, and do you do a better job of some things? Yes. So telling somebody is one thing, going through it is another.”
Coach K understands
Izzo had no problem agreeing it was the Tournament’s biggest upset, considering the Spartans were a favorite to win it all. In a weird way, the distinction is almost a compliment, that Michigan State looked so powerful, the loss was more stunning than the seven previous two-over-15 shockers. Among those No. 2 seeds that suffered the ignominy — Syracuse (1991), Arizona (1993), Duke (2012) and Georgetown (2013).
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski lost to 15th-seeded Lehigh in 2012 and followed it up by falling to 14th-seeded Mercer in 2014. There isn’t much solace in knowing the game’s greats have felt what Izzo is feeling, but he appreciated a text he received from Krzyzewski.
“I won’t go through everything that was in it, but it was a really cool text,” Izzo said. “It was … that few people can understand because few people have been there. If you’re not up there all the time, there’s not an upset.”
For the record, Duke won the national championship the year after it lost to Mercer. That’s not a guarantee — please, not that — for Michigan State, but a healthy reminder that quick rejuvenation is possible. It will take a while for this sting to fade, but it’s not an ever-lasting stain.
New challenge awaits
Next year’s team could be Izzo’s most talented, pending the decision by another top recruit, Josh Jackson. It also will depend on the status of sophomore to-be Deyonta Davis, who’s rated by some an NBA lottery pick and will consider the jump. The 6-foot-10 Davis needs work and I think he’ll return, but these situations are always unpredictable.
Replacing Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes will be difficult in many ways. Sophomore Lourawls Nairn Jr. has the demeanor to lead, but not the high-level game. Eron Harris and Gavin Schilling are dependable defensive players. Pretty much all roles and positions are up for grabs, which could make next season one of the most interesting, unpredictable and motivational of Izzo’s tenure.
“I think it will be a challenge, and the biggest challenge for me is leadership,” Izzo said. “It could be three (freshmen that start). It could be two. It could be one. … We’re gonna be 50/50 — 50 percent new guys, 50 percent veterans. It’s going to be very, very important to figure out (leadership) with the players.”
Maybe next year’s team develops into another powerhouse, or maybe it tests Izzo’s patience. The only thing we know for certain is, the Spartans understand the Tournament better than ever, and won’t take anything for granted.