EAST LANSING, Mich. – He was pumping his fists and stomping his feet and if you ever wanted to see a coach literally will a team to a seemingly impossible effort, to a historic victory, to, perhaps, the NCAA tournament, then Tom Izzo was waiting with his crooked tie and flailing arms.
Izzo has never been one for subtlety, a ball of fire slamming the sideline even during the most emotionless of early season games.
Bring No. 1 Wisconsin into his Breslin Center snake pit to face a youthful, blue-collar team that bears little resemblance to his usual Michigan State powerhouses, and it goes to a whole new level.
And so when it was done, Michigan State victorious 64-55 thanks mostly to defense and rebounding – a Tom Izzo Special – he wasn’t just going to let the night slip away.
This is college basketball and February nights like this are what it is all about sometimes; simple memories even at a program used to Final Fours, to Big Ten titles, to being the team atop the polls, not vice versa.
So here was Izzo bear hugging his players, from star Drew Neitzel on down to the scrubs. Here was Izzo pausing to watch the white-clad fans storm the court and dance for joy. Here was Izzo getting mauled by the students while the band played double-time, his eyes darting into the stands looking for familiar faces to share the moment with.
He wasn’t leaving this court quickly. He wasn’t getting out of this moment if he didn’t have to.
“I just sat there and watched,” he said later. “I did kind of enjoy it. It’s a memory maker.”
Career victory No. 275 was as special as any he could remember, at least in the regular season. Izzo has turned this place into a juggernaut but this is one of those years when a natural lull hit.
In many ways, this is when you prove your worth as a coach – what do you have when you don’t have a lot.
He’s got a superstar junior guard in Neitzel and then a bunch of young, hungry guys. A top five recruiting class is en route, so the days of the State in the top 10, of having lottery picks in waiting will return, perhaps by next winter.
But this team, with this talent, is going to have to fight and scrap and battle for everything it could get because the offense just isn’t there.
“At practice I started standing on the sideline rather than the baseline because I felt like I was getting bombarded with missed shots,” Izzo said.
Less than two weeks ago they managed just 38 measly points in a loss at Purdue.
“It’s been up and down,” said Neitzel, who had 28 points all by himself Tuesday. “Coach stayed positive with us. Well, as positive as he can be.”
Neitzel laughed. Izzo wears his heart on his sleeve at all times – you know his mood when he’s ordering coffee – so he’s the last guy who can fake it during a four game losing streak.
“That’s probably why I love Coach Izzo,” Neitzel explained. “He does so much for this program. This was so rewarding for him. There wasn’t a better way to (thank him) than what we did tonight.”
What they did was everything he could ever ask. Defensively they were ferocious, holding Wisconsin to just 35.8 percent from the field. On the boards they were indomitable, going plus-17 and grabbing nearly as many offensive rebounds (13) as the Badgers had defensive (15).
Defense and rebounding. Rebounding and defense. That’s Izzo’s program. That’s what he hangs his hat on. That’s why he is famous for suiting his guys up in football pads at practice every so often. And that, even on a team so young that a sophomore (Travis Walton) is co-captain, is what is getting them through.
“Our defense . . . God,” said Izzo. “I just don’t know how (we did it).”
The Spartans (20-8) aren’t in the tournament yet, but they just got the big win they needed to separate from the Big Ten pack. Not that Izzo wanted to think about that post-game.
He is always talking to his players about leaving footprints, about leaving a legacy here. That isn’t easy for this group, staring at four Final Fours since 1999.
But State had never beaten a top-ranked team in East Lansing. So this was something new. This was a footprint. That it came from this group, of all groups, is the ultimate testament to the program.
“Everyone leaves a mark in a different way,” Izzo said. “This is what makes it so special. (The celebration) in the locker room, that is a priceless memory to be in there with some guys who have spilt it.”
Guys who have followed their unyielding coach to a night, to a season, to a future that so many times this winter just didn’t seem possible. They aren’t going to give their school or their coach another Final Four. But Tuesday they gave enough, they gave them some magic.
“That’s a memory,” Izzo said, “I’m going to enjoy for a long time.”