- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

Not only did Michigan State get to the Final Four, the Spartans beat Duke and Kentucky in last week’s Austin Regional to do it. Their next opponent will be North Carolina in tomorrow’s national semifinals, setting up a potential trifecta against college basketball’s marquee names.

But at what point does Michigan State itself deserve consideration among college basketball’s heavy hitters? When does Tom Izzo’s name get mentioned among the coaching elite?

How about now?

“I’d have to think he belongs up there,” said Izzo’s mentor, former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote.

In the last seven seasons, Izzo has led the Spartans to four Final Four appearances, including three in a row from 1999 to 2001, and a national championship in 2000. His NCAA tournament record of 23-6 (.793) is the best among active coaches with at least 10 tournament games.

Izzo passed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, star of those ubiquitous American Express commercials and a regular face in other TV ads. In his 10th season, Izzo, 50, gets no such exposure.

While those who know the game appreciate his work, there is a sense neither he nor his program yet has achieved the star status enjoyed by Krzyzewski and others. Izzo was asked this week if he believes he has been overlooked.

Predictably, he said no.

“I think those [other coaches] have deserved what they’ve done because they’ve done it longer than I have,” he said. “I always say there are no quick fixes. I’m not saying ours is a quick fix, but I think we’re proving that we’re getting to the point that we belong up there.”

Izzo apprenticed as a longtime assistant to Heathcote, who won the national championship in 1979 with Magic Johnson. In 1995, Heathcote picked Izzo as his successor. It did not look like a genius move at first.

“He struggled his first two years,” Heathcote said. “They wanted me tarred and feathered and Tom fired. Then he wins the Big Ten title [in 1998] and the Final Four and he can run for governor. … Tom is never satisfied with second place. He’s not satisfied with anything but the top. He’s almost obsessed with success, and that’s probably what makes him a good coach.”

Izzo’s teams are noted for defense and rebounding. He recruits players who are both physically and mentally tough, traits reflected in the Spartans’ hard-nosed play. They will bang and do a lot of the dirty work — and they are quick and athletic enough to run, too.

“He recruits very good players who are willing to buy into what he’s selling there,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

Said Heathcote: “He has a knack for getting kids to play a little harder than the opposition. It drives him completely insane whenever they get outrebounded, whenever they don’t play good defense. He loves the up-tempo game and he really loves to check down at the other end.”

Izzo, whose best friend is Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci, a former high school teammate and college roommate, is not averse to suiting up football players (watch the bodies scatter) and peppering his conversation with football references.

He likes to attend training camps, taking note of how the head coach organizes a staff of a dozen or more assistants and delegates authority. He said it’s one reason several of his own assistants have become head coaches.

Izzo showed some physical play himself on Selection Sunday, a few days after his team was knocked out of the Big Ten tournament early by Iowa. Many had written off the Spartans by then. In front of the team, Izzo smashed two game tapes with a hammer, symbolizing an end to the old season and the start of a new one. Heathcote helped Izzo come up with the idea.

Izzo has downplayed the episode, yet here is Michigan State. Maybe a Home Depot commercial is in the works.

“It’s not the coaches, it’s not the motivation,” he said. “I really believe that. It’s the players finally believing and understanding and wanting to do something about it.”

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