Saturday, January 31, 2015

Spartan basketball, the career and legacy of Tom Izzo, and the Michigan game

It's been over a week since I posted in this blog, and in that time MSU basketball lost to an average Nebraska and blew out a horrible Rutgers. And now, quite unexpectedly, I have tickets for tomorrow's game against Michigan.

At this point, all that can really be said about the basketball team is this: the only part of them that is predictable about them is their unpredictability--and that they can't shoot free throws to save their lives.  However, there is a glimmer of hope that perhaps they're turning a corner. After a terrible first half against Nebraska, the team played much better in the second half and almost came away with a most improbable win. The schedule smiled upon them with the next game on the road against Rutgers, and the Spartans dominated throughout to take a 20-point win.

So, looking at tomorrow's game, the Spartans should win. It's at home, the Wolverines are depleted, and the Spartans should ride the momentum of a blowout win at Rutgers.

Branden Dawson played great against Rutgers and seems to be performing at a high level that he's always been capable of attaining. I've often thought that Dawson is one of the most frustrating players Izzo has ever had. He is an incredibly gifted athlete who has the capability of dominating a game--when he's into it. Too often, he seems either disinterested or just inconsistent. If "good" Dawson shows up tomorrow--which I fully expect in a game against MSU's arch rival--and the Spartans can shoot reasonably well from the perimeter and not awful from the free throw line, MSU should win this game by at least 8 or 9 points.

I don't want to dismiss Michigan, though. Despite the loss of Levert and Walton, Michigan continues to play just well enough to get it done. Any team that is able to take Wisconsin to overtime, while missing two of its most important players, must be taken very seriously.


Tom Izzo turned 60 years old yesterday. How did he (and I) get this old? In the same year that Izzo hits the big six-oh, we celebrate his 20th season as MSU head basketball coach. I hate to use the whole trite "where did the time go" cliché, but...WHERE THE HECK DID THE TIME GO?

When Izzo was named head coach, I'm sure I was not unlike most everyone else in wondering who he was. I don't think I was following the basketball team close enough at the time to notice him on the bench as one of Jud Heathcote's assistants. In fact, when I first heard his name, I thought that perhaps he was related to former MSU basketball player Mario Izzo. (One look at the 7-foot Mario Izzo and the 5' 9"-ish Tom Izzo would immediately dispel any notion that the two were related).

The first two years at MSU were tough for Tom Izzo. Jud hadn't left him with much talent and those first two teams struggled. Many, including yours truly, wondered if this Izzo guy was the right man for the job. At the time, I didn't fully realize that slowly but surely Tom Izzo was building a soon-to-be-dominant program at MSU. Key recruits like Antonio Smith and Mateen Cleaves were the foundation.

Izzo's third year was the breakthrough year, but even that season wasn't without its tribulations. The Spartans had a less than stellar non-conference slate including a loss to the University of Detroit that I remember well because my instant reaction was, "here we go again." Undoubtedly the first big win of Izzo's coaching career came in the Big Ten opener against the overwhelmingly favored Purdue, when the Spartans stunned the Boilermakers 74-57 at Mackey Arena. Unfortunately, I didn't actually see the game, but clearly remember seeing the headline in the Lansing State Journal the next day and being completely dumbstruck that the Spartans had won by such an overwhelming score. (As a side note, it's hard to imagine that there was once a time when one couldn't instantly learn who had won a game. I waited over 12 hours to discover MSU had beaten Purdue).

From that point forward, we have experienced the glory years of Spartan basketball. But I suppose even with all the incredible success Izzo has had--the 2000 national championship, the Big Ten championships, the Final Fours--that 1997-1998 team will always maintain a special place in my memory. I remember visiting the now-defunct College Store shortly after the season ended and buying a "1998 Big Ten champions" t-shirt and the 1997-1998 basketball media guide, all the while thinking how great it was that MSU had won the Big Ten title and to appreciate it NOW because it wasn't likely to happen again for at least another decade...little did I know what the future would have in store. Tom Izzo has taken the Michigan State basketball programs to heights I never thought were possible.


On Friday's Drive with Jack Ebling, Jack asked various guests to name their favorite MSU/UM basketball game. His UoM grad/fan/co-host Tom Crawford went with Michigan's 2011 win at Breslin (a game I'd like to forget ever happened). Jack's choice was the 1986 game at Jenison Fieldhouse, and I have a hard time arguing with that. The scrappy Spartans beat the eventual Big Ten champion Wolverines, 91-79. Re-reading some of Jack's piece about the game in his book Magic Moments: a Century of Spartan Basketball, I'm reminded of how much I disliked Antoine Joubert at the time and how thrilling it was that Skiles and company beat those guys that season--not just once, but TWICE. Despite Joubert guaranteeing a payback win at Crisler, the Spartans hammered the Wolverines even worse than they had at Jenison. The final score in Ann Arbor was 74-59. At the time, I was a senior at Caro High School in the thumb of Michigan and overrun by Michigan fans. I was able to hold my head high that season.

I suppose my favorite game in the series was the 2013 game at Breslin, a game I was lucky enough to attend in person. It was the first and only time that both teams entered the game both ranked in the national top ten and the Spartans blew out the Wolverines in a spirited performance.

Other memorable MSU/UM basketball games: 

1979 (MSU 80, Michigan 57; at Jenison). I was a 10 year-old kid at my grandma's house in Rosedale Park, Detroit and watched this game in her den/library. The Spartans avenged an earlier heartbreaking loss in Ann Arbor and completely blew out the Wolverines in the rematch. I haven't seen this game since the day it was played, but the memories I have involve MSU running fast break after fast break with Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Greg Kelser putting on a show. I don't know if my memories necessarily represent reality, but the warm glow from those hazy memories remains to this day.

1998 (MSU 80, Michigan 75; at Breslin). After losing his first five meetings to Michigan, Tom Izzo finally broke through into the win column.  I clearly remember watching this game at the Peanut Barrel in East Lansing and, fueled by a reasonable amount of beer, going crazy near the end of a tense back-and-forth victory against the Wolverines. I talked a lot of trash and said some nasty things about Robert "Tractor' Traylor and the rest of the Michigan team. I let out all my frustration that had been pent up during that five-game losing streak between 1996 to the first MSU/UM meeting of 1998. Those there who were unfamiliar with what a lunatic I can become during MSU sporting events were probably alarmed by my demeanor.

2000 (MSU 114, Michigan 63; at Breslin). Unfortunately, I had to work during this game and didn't actually see it until after the fact. (My at-the-time fiancĂ©e and later wife was good enough to tape the game for me. Ah, the days of VHS. What memories).  A friend of mine and fellow co-worker (who was smart and took the day off to watch the game) called me at work to relay the score, probably at or near halftime. (Once again, imagine that there was once a time when you couldn't check a score on your phone or computer). The phone conversation I had with my friend went something like this:

Friend: "You'll never guess what the score is."

Me (always a bit worried when it comes to this game): "Uh-oh, is it good or bad?"

Friend: "Oh, it's pretty good."

Me: "Okay, what's the score?"

Friend: "MSU is up 51-24."

Me: "Get the hell out of here! Seriously? You better not be messing with me!"

Friend: "No! It's really 51-24! I'm not kidding!"

Me: "Holy shit."

It was an amazing and incredible win in which everything--and I mean EVERYTHING--went right for the Spartans. Seemingly every shot they made went in the basket, and Mateen Cleaves set a Big Ten assist record that still stands. The game was a happy culmination of everything Izzo had built over the first five years of his head coaching tenure, and served as a hometown send-off for the Spartans' march to the Big Ten tournament championship and national championship.


While this year's game doesn't have as much juice or intrigue as games past, it's still Michigan. I'm hoping for a win. With a victory, I'll be content until September (regardless of what happens in Ann Arbor) and the Spartan basketball team will set themselves up well for a potentially strong finish to the regular season. I don't want to think of what a loss will mean.

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