Are Izzo and the Spartans elite?

Is Tom Izzo one of the best college basketball coaches ever?

That’s the question that seems to get asked every year, especially when the NCAA Tournament comes around in March, but it never seems to get fully answered.

Izzo, a Northern Michigan University graduate and the pride and joy of the Upper Peninsula, is already seen as a very good coach by the majority of fans in the country. As the head coach at Michigan State, he’s made eight Final Four appearances, won nine Big Ten regular-season titles and six Big Ten Tournament championships. That’s a pretty impressive resume for any NCAA Division I coach.

However, he’s only won one national championship and that came back in 2000 when the No. 1-seeded Spartans beat fifth-seeded Florida, which had upset fellow top seed Duke in the Sweet 16.

Winning a national title should be enough to satisfy Izzo’s critics, but they make the argument that his lone victory came almost two decades ago and it’s still just one title compared to the three won by North Carolina’s Roy Williams, the five won by the Blue Devils’ Mike Krzyzewski or the 10 won by former UCLA coach John Wooden.

It’s not just Izzo, though. It’s also the Spartans as a program. Are they an elite program? MSU is commonly seen as a “basketball school” these days, even though its football program isn’t too shabby either.

However, most universities that are considered basketball schools have more than two national titles to brag about like Duke, UNC, Kentucky or Kansas.

The other argument is that so-called basketball schools are usually the team that is picked to win the conference every year. That may be the case for the schools listed above, but that’s not for the Spartans.

MSU is always in the conversation, but nowadays, so are Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana. Sometimes, you can throw Illinois and Ohio State in the mix. Even Minnesota is on the rise, but as a former Minnesotan, I can say pump the brakes on that one.

After listening to these arguments every year, I can say that they’re wrong, even if Izzo himself acknowledges them as valid.

In a column posted by the Lansing State Journal’s Graham Couch, Izzo was asked in a press conference on Tuesday how he’d respond to all the critics out there who have said he needs another national title to validate his time as MSU’s coach.

Some coaches would disregard any critics they had, but according to Couch’s column, Izzo reacted differently, saying “I’d say they’re right because I need to validate it for me. I don’t need to validate it for them. I have my own goals. And I have my own aspirations of what I want to do. And what I want to do is put Michigan State University in rare air — two national championships by the same school starts to separate you from the 40-some that have won one.”

It’s interesting that he’d say that because he really doesn’t need to do that for himself. I’m not Izzo’s psychologist and I don’t want to pretend to be. However, what he’s done at MSU is pretty spectacular.

He’s brought a level of success to the Spartans that hadn’t been seen since the Magic Johnson days, which happened before I was born. That’s actually a sense of pride for me because it proves that I’m not as old as I might think I am.

MSU was an afterthought in the Big Ten and to my generation, the Spartans were just a team that might make the NCAA Tournament, but we knew wouldn’t go far.

When Izzo brought them to the Final Four in 1999, that was the first time that we Millennials knew that things were different and then when he did it again the next two years, it was a clear sign that the Spartans were here to stay. At least as long as Izzo was in East Lansing.

As Couch also pointed out, this was arguably the most winnable Final Four the Spartans have had, probably since they won it all in 2000 as two No. 8 seeds were also in Indianapolis that weekend.

Sure, they made the title game in 2009, but odds are, the Spartans weren’t going to beat that dominant Tar Heels squad. In 2015, it looked like Kentucky was going to roll to the title and even though the Wildcats were upset by the Badgers in the semifinals, MSU wasn’t going to beat John Calipari’s team.

The only other winnable Final Four under Izzo’s tenure was in 2010 with a forgettable Duke squad, Butler and West Virginia (how many of you remember that team?). Unfortunately, the Spartans committed several turnovers and were stifled by the Bulldogs, ultimately losing by just two points.

This year felt different though. Texas Tech kept two good teams in Gonzaga and Michigan locked down on defense, but the Red Raiders weren’t exactly a team that struck fear into opposing teams. Virginia barely got by 12th-seeded Oregon and needed a lucky shot and overtime to beat the Boilermakers to get to the Final Four.

Finally, there was Auburn, who shouldn’t even have gotten past the first round, but managed to get hot at the right time, taking down UNC and Kentucky. As impressive as that run was, the Spartans were by far the more talented team, so if they were to have faced off in the championship, MSU would definitely have been the favorite.

As this column is going to press, the MSU and Texas Tech game will be in the second half, so I’m not sure if the result will make it in here in time, but regardless of how the game goes, both Izzo and the Spartans don’t need to worry or think about their legacies.

Izzo is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, so it’s pretty clear he’s an elite coach. He’s already won one championship, so that puts him on the same pedestal as Calipari, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Kansas’ Bill Self. Finally, like I said earlier, he took control of a decent program and brought it to the Final Four in just four seasons. MSU has been on an impressive roll ever since.

Are the Spartans elite? Yes, because they’ve been either great or really good for the past 20 years. Is Izzo one of the best coaches ever? Yes. He has a national title, multiple Big Ten championships, several Final Fours and is a Hall of Famer. Another national championship always helps pad your resume, but Izzo doesn’t need it.

Izzo may feel that he needs a second championship to validate himself, but as far as the rest of us go, he doesn’t have to prove anything. He already has, year after year.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.


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