Izzo: We have players who want to be here

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Syracuse, N.Y. — It's March, but Tom Izzo still asked to check the calendar this week.

He was joking — mostly — when someone asked him Thursday at the Carrier Dome about making another Tournament run without a bunch of high-profile recruits already ticketed for the NBA. Like Duke's freshman combo of Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, for example, two players Izzo spent a lot of time courting.

Doesn't that make this Sweet 16 trip just a little bit sweeter?

"When's the trade deadline up?" Izzo said, laughing. "I'd still trade. If it's before (Friday), I'm still doing it."

But then he quickly went on to talk about the tradeoff he's willing — again, perhaps — to make when it comes to recruiting and the starry-eyed reality of today's college basketball.

"I know one thing," Izzo continued, with Michigan State getting ready to face Oklahoma in Friday night's East Regional semifinals. "I wouldn't trade anybody as far as the way these guys have handled things this year."

So, to answer that question …

"I don't know if it's a validation," Izzo said. "It's just you do what you do."

When less is more

For Michigan State, that still means doing it the old-fashioned way, in some respects. The here-today, gone-tomorrow recruits are mostly going somewhere else — Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Kentucky, and so on. (Did I mention Kentucky?)

And for Izzo, that doesn't necessarily mean settling for less. It just means remembering that less can still provide more, the way it has for most of his 20-year reign in East Lansing.

Sure, Michigan State has landed its share of blue-chip talent. The Spartans' coach has produced plenty of NBA players as well, and the emerging success of Draymond Green in Golden State — "Magic (Johnson), I think, is coming back," Izzo said — certainly won't hurt the pitch to prep stars the next few years.

But only up to a point, it seems. And that's the point Izzo has been making in earnest lately, particularly as this year's team — blessed with far less NBA potential than last year's Elite Eight squad — came together over the last month.

"We're making some progress — until you recruit against certain people," Izzo said, not needing to name names, really. "But with all those things, somebody out there is going to appreciate the family atmosphere and the fact that when you come here, you're not just a person, a fly on the wall. You are going to be appreciated by the players before you, by the players with you, by the alums.

"I think that's what I have to sell. That's what our university is all about. And I'm getting more comfortable selling that again, too. I've wavered up and down, (thinking) 'You gotta go after this guy, or that guy. You've got to have good enough players.' But this team has taught me something, too. You've got to have players that want to be here, want to play for the university, want to play to win a championship."

Room for individual goals

Now, it'd be nice to win another national championship. That's still the burning desire for Izzo, as he readily admits. But he's managed to win one, and reach six Final Fours, and get to the round of 16 seven of the last eight years without a roster stacked with early-entry candidates.

So while he understand what sells best — "If I had a chance to win a national championship or get a guy in the lottery, as far as recruiting, the lottery is more important than the national championship," he told ESPN radio this week — he's also knows his best pitch might be a curveball.

"I will say this: I've always been a coach that believed in personal goals and team goals," he said. "I want guys that want to get to the NBA. I want them to want to get to it tomorrow. I want guys that care about their own individuals goals, whether it be to become an All-American, or a leading scorer and all that.

"But I also want guys that winning is important to and I think NBA people want guys that winning is important to. So it's just that constant battle to try and put two different things together to come up with this great player that's a winner and a superstar. And we're working on it."