Q-and-A with Tom Izzo
As much as he enjoyed each experience, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said appearing in back-to-back Final Fours has the tendency to make folks a little spoiled.
“Everyone gets fat and sassy sometimes,” Izzo said. “It’s normal. Sometimes fans and media around here think the Final Four is on our schedule. It’s not.”
“That’s OK, though,” he said. “It’s not our job to complain about expectations. Our job is to live up to them.”
Three weeks into the season, the Spartans haven’t.
At least not yet.
Michigan State entered the season ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll, so it was a bit surprising when Izzo’s squad had to rally to defeat Division II Chaminade in the opening round of last week’s Maui Invitational. The following day the Spartans lost to unranked Connecticut.
Michigan State ended the tournament on a positive note by beating then-No. 13 Washington in Wednesday’s third-place game, but Izzo realizes some people may be curious why a team that lost just two top players (Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen) from last year’s Final Four squad has struggled a bit out of the gate.
With a game against defending national champion Duke slated for Wednesday in Durham, Izzo said the Spartans need to get better. Fast.
Izzo talked about his team, his program and his career during a phone interview with Yahoo! Sports.
Q: What was your mood when you left Maui last week? Discouraged or encouraged?
A: “A little of both. We don’t look like a great team yet, but that doesn’t surprise me. We’re just not functioning yet in the manner that I expect us to. More than anything it’s because they haven’t played together long enough. We had guys injured all summer and part of the fall. We’re just not getting everyone together. We’ve got no rotation yet with our team.”
Q: Why is it taking so long to develop a rotation?
A: “It’s not the players’ fault. We had five guys out two months or more this summer. Delvon Roe missed two months. Austin Thornton missed two months. Adreian Payne is a big key for us. We think he’s going to be really good. But he missed four-and-a-half months with a separated shoulder that he had to get operated on. Kalin Lucas was out six months. Korie Lucious missed a lot of time. It was really bad. It was a lot worse than most people know. So the fact that we’re still working out some [kinks] doesn’t totally surprise me.
“There were some positives. We didn’t play great, but we beat a very good team in Washington. We had UConn all but beat, but we couldn’t make a free throw and we couldn’t get a rebound off a free throw. Those are all good teams. I was impressed with the teams that were there. I think I’ll look back on it with more good thoughts than bad.”
Q: Speaking of the UConn game, you probably could’ve used Derrick Nix’s size down low, but he didn’t make the trip to Maui. How is he now that you’ve reinstated him to the team?
A: “He was having some issues, but I think he’s got himself straightened out in his brain now. It wasn’t one thing. He just had a lot of things on his plate between school and his girlfriend and the fact that he was a little upset about his playing time, although I think that part was minor. He met with the staff and the team and everything seems like it’s going to be OK. He’s going to help us in terms of depth. We needed in him Maui when we got into foul trouble. When you have a guy missing, it changes a lot of things. He’s back in the fold. It wasn’t like it was anything major for us. It was more about him. Yet it was disappointing, because we felt like if we had him we could’ve won that tournament. We needed another body in there. UConn was pretty physical inside. We just didn’t have it.”
Q: How good do you feel about your two high-profile signees, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne?
A: “We had Appling in at the end of the Washington game, and I was really impressed with him defensively. Payne played really well in some of the early games. But UConn and Washington both had really physical inside players, and he’s not ready for that yet. I really like both of them.
“Payne has a chance to be really, really good. He wasn’t able to lift a weight all summer and he wasn’t able to get on the court until September. People have a tendency to think everything is fine once you change into a uniform. They don’t realize that this kid didn’t touch a weight or a ball all summer. Don’t get me wrong. I had high expectations for him, too. None of this is his fault.
“Coaches always use the phrase, ‘Players get better in the summer and teams get better in the winter.’ Well, I had so many guys that couldn’t make any progress over the summer. It’s different when you have a bunch of guys that may have a three-week ankle injury. But when they’re gone two or four or six months, and they’re key guys … that’s a lot.
“The good thing is that we’re healthy now. We’ve just got to get them back to the place they were at. I’ve said all along that it would probably take until the middle or end of December. I’m not going to change my prediction on that, but we’re definitely making some strides and taking some steps.”
Q: Looking ahead, you travel to Durham on Wednesday to take on Duke. You’ve been to three Final Fours in the last six years. Do you feel like Michigan State’s program is on the same level as Duke’s?
A: “I don’t think we’re quite there yet. The one thing they’ve done that the rest of us haven’t is they’ve been more consistent on a game-in, game-out basis than anyone. What I respect most about their program isn’t the Final Fours or the national championships. It’s that game-in, game-out grind. You very seldom see Duke get upset. Whether they’re playing a good team or a poor team, they consistently play at a pretty high level. That’s one thing we’re still working toward. That’s where [Mike Krzyzewski] separates himself. Over a 30-game period, he has so few times where his team isn’t playing at a high level. That’s the best compliment I could give him – or myself, if my team ever gets to that point.”
Q: How good is this year’s Duke team?
A: “I think Duke is head and shoulders above the rest and there are 20 of us fighting for that next spot.”
Q: When it comes to your Michigan State program, what makes you the most proud?
A: “I still think we’ve played as tough of a non-conference schedule as anyone over the last 10 years. It’s the reason we’ve had more losses than most of the other teams that have been in the Final Fours. Luckily, by the time we get there, we’ve been able to right the ship. We’ve been consistent after the first 30 games. Not just when it comes to getting to Final Fours, but competing for Big Ten championships. We’re proud that we’re in the mix each year. What I’m looking for now is that game-to-game consistency. We’ve probably done a lot more than I give us credit for. I’m proud that we graduate a bunch of guys and I’m proud that we do it the right way.”
Q: Can having too much success create problems when it comes to complacency?
A: “It can sometimes. That’s one of the reasons I have those tough schedules (laughing). I think it’s a compliment to our program that people have such high expectations for us.”
Q: Speaking of high expectations, there’s a lot of hype surrounding the Big Ten this season. Most analysts agree that it’s the best conference in college basketball. What’s your take?
A: “Honestly, I think it’s the best it’s been since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here 27 years. It’s better than it was projected, and I say that because I know Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern are great teams. Most of them have already proven it. And there are four teams that are bona fide contenders – four teams that are among the 15 or 16 teams in the country that have a chance to do something special. Plus, Illinois is better than anyone is imagining. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern were picked fifth, sixth and seventh in our league. That should tell you something. Indiana is going to be much better. Michigan and Iowa are improved. We’ve got really good coaches in our league right now.”
Q: Switching gears a bit, the Cleveland Cavaliers offered you their head coaching position last summer. After weighing your options you decided to remain at Michigan State. Months later, how good do you feel about that decision?
A: “I know it was hard on some people here. But everyone at Michigan State was great, because they gave me a chance to really take a serious look at it. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime deals. Because I was able to look at it, I can sit back now and officially say that I have no regrets. I’m greatly appreciative to my A.D. (Mark Hollis] and my president (Lou Anna Simon]. They were great about it. Some media and fans were mad. But it was a situation where the offer was so much that I had to take a look at it. I did, and I’ve had no regrets since the day it happened.”
Q: There have been a lot of headlines in recent months about high-profile schools and coaches violating NCAA rules. How disheartening is that for a coach who prides himself on doing things the right way?
A: “I’ve been disappointed in a couple of things, but it’s so hard for our profession right now because of all the social media that’s out there. And by social media I mean all the knuckleheads in the dorms on the internet or the guys on talk radio. There’s just so much said and done now and so much bad information out there. It’s making our profession look bad.
“It’s getting hard to be a player and hard to be a coach because of it all. Everyone is focused on the negative, and that disappoints me. Every university has a paper, every university has bloggers. There is so much stuff out there, and only a quarter of it is the truth. It takes on a life of its own and we have to deal with it. I’m more disappointed with that situation than I am with certain programs.
“For the most part we’re doing our jobs the same way we were 10 years ago. Sure, there may be some guys out there that have made bad decisions, but it’s basically the same. It’s a shame some of these things have happened, because our sport is so good. It’s good for the fans and it’s good for the NCAA. I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit.
“I choose to look at the positives. I know this: We just played in a tournament with three ranked teams, and one of the unranked teams won it. There are great teams in college basketball. There are a lot more good things about our game right now than bad.”