- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Three seasons. Three Final Fours.

It's a rare plateau Michigan State has reached this spring under sixth-year coach Tom Izzo, becoming just the third college basketball program to play in three straight national semifinals since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

While the college game increasingly is criticized for its mutability with several established coaches fired in recent weeks the Spartans (28-4) have become a mainstay. They will face Arizona (27-7) on Saturday despite losing three starters from last year's national title squad.

Sustaining this run just might put Michigan State, a longtime afterthought in its own state behind Michigan, in the realm of historical powerhouses like UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina.

Or perhaps the Spartans are already there.

"There's no question they are in that elite status," Arizona coach Lute Olson said yesterday on a national conference call for Final Four coaches. "There's no doubt Tom has seen a difference in recruiting, particularly in his own state. I remember when I coached in the Big Ten [at Iowa from 1975 to 1983], it was pretty tough to recruit [against Michigan]. Now it seems the tide has turned."

With good reason. Since 1985, only Duke (1988-92) and Kentucky (1996-98) also reached at least three straight Final Fours, and just nine programs have done it in tournament history. Two more wins by the Spartans would make them the first to win consecutive titles since Duke (1991-92).

Izzo does it with rebounding and defense, but he opens up his gameplan just enough to utilize the recruits Olson mentioned. The result is an incredible 14-1 record in the past three NCAA tournaments, improving Izzo's career record in the NCAAs to 16-2 an .889 winning percentage that leads all active coaches and ranks third all-time, ahead of UCLA legend John Wooden (47-10, .825).

But Izzo claims little responsibility for the success. On yesterday's conference call, he picked providence when asked to name a common factor in the past three postseason runs, saying, "I believe you need to be good enough to get to the Sweet 16, then Lady Luck has to play a hand a little bit."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team faces Maryland in Saturday's other semifinal, points to Izzo's personality to explain the Spartans' consistency.

"Tom is a better person than he is a coach," said Krzyzewski, whose .794 tournament clip ranks just behind Izzo. "He's well-grounded. Success or failure in a game is not going to go to his head in any way. As a result of that, his teams are going to have a consistency of effort. If anybody was going to [go to three straight Final Fours], it's going to be a guy like Tom Izzo especially in this day and age."

But Krzyzewski considers talent the key to any Final Four appearance, and the Spartans have a bit less of that this season. A year ago, point guard Mateen Cleaves and forward Morris Peterson both NBA Draft first-rounders earned the program's second title, following Magic Johnson's championship in 1979.

This year the Spartans have one true NBA-bound talent in 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Jason Richardson, their leading scorer. Otherwise they rely on methodical 6-8 senior power forward Andre Hutson, defense-oriented senior point guard Charlie Bell, role players, a deep bench and Izzo's trademark combination of rebounding and defense.

"It's a headless body, which sounds bad, but it's kind of good," Izzo told reporters in Lansing this week. "You can cut off the head, and the rest still works."

But the headless body must have looked initially bad, too, as Izzo has admitted he didn't believe his team would return to the Final Four this year. Michigan State, in a unique divergence from many historical powerhouses, has not discussed defending its title per se.

"You always have dreams and goals, but we were in such a battle all season for the Big 10 title," said Izzo, whose Spartans shared the conference crown with Illinois. "Then we got to the tournament and were just taking it week by week. You start reassessing your goals at the end of the year, and now all of a sudden we're playing for it all."

And shooting for a higher place in history.

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