NEW YORK – Last fall, before the Michigan State's season began, Tom Izzo had an expert speak to his players.
"An expert on social media," Izzo said.
He then stopped speaking, rolled his eyes upward and did the sign of the cross.
"An oxymoron in itself," he finally continued.
There are few things Izzo hates more than social media, particularly Twitter.
"If this was HBO," Izzo said, "I would get more in depth about how much I despise it because I still, and I'm going to say this, I think it hurts kids."
His expressed distaste for social media isn't new. Izzo's rants across the season about how angry, often anonymous fans, can spew hateful vile at his players 24 hours a day take on additional meaning as his Spartans prepare to play Connecticut on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.
An injury-filled season that saw up-and-down play and an apparently unacceptable eight losses found the nastiness ramped up against Izzo and his team. Social media means there's no escaping it. The game is over, yet the shouting continues through each player's phone.
Yet when everyone got healthy prior to the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State returned to the form that its preseason top-five ranking promised. The Spartans haven't lost since.
Needless to say everyone in green is very popular on Twitter again.
"There were people putting a fork in us [in late February]," Izzo said. "Then two weeks later the President's picking us to win the whole thing."
This is when a lot of coaches, a lot of players, a lot of people would take one of two routes.
One is to enjoy an I-told-you-so moment and remind every critic that they should've been patient because they didn't know what they were speaking of. The other is to brush it off and pretend it was never a big deal, proving they are bigger than the noise. After all, Michigan State is here playing in a big old city and all the guy on Twitter is going to be is mean or some variation of a Taylor Swift song.
Izzo, though, isn't good at playing pretend. Social media hurts him. He's 59, a popular, respected multimillionaire at his professional peak and headed to the Hall of Fame one day, so maybe it shouldn't, but it does. His problem with social media, and Twitter in particular, is different than other coaches. A number of them ban their players from using the system because they may embarrass themselves or offer unneeded motivational material for opponents. Izzo, however, doesn't fear what his players will write, but what they will read. He is comfortable acknowledging that his big, tough players have broken down in tears because they can't get away from the jeering hecklers when a game is blown.
"I told my players [before the opening game of the season], it you beat Kentucky you're going to have 10,000 fans tweeting you and you are going to have to deal with that," Izzo said. "Then if you lose to Kentucky, because we love the negativity in our society, you're going to have 100,000 fans tweeting you telling you how bad you are.
"Well, just think about that … that was not easy for them to deal with."
If you don't think that has affected the way coaches and, more important, the players – who aren't being paid big money but are treated like professionals anyway – view their own fans, then you aren't paying attention.
No, it isn't changing. The old days are never coming back.
But that doesn't mean there aren't consequences. How can you trust the people patting you on the back today, when obviously some of them were killing you just last month? And these are "fans."
"We just said, 'Nobody cares about us except everybody on our team, our managers and our staff,'" sophomore guard Denzel Valentine said.
It's not exactly a collegiate mindset. It is how you make it through though.
Michigan State was riddled with injuries this season, constantly missing top talent and struggling with chemistry. Izzo trotted out 15 different starting lineups, with 11 players getting the nod at least once. The current five have started just 19 of 37 games together.
Still, the Spartans went 23-8 in the regular season. And supposedly unpardonable sins such as losing at home to Nebraska or Illinois actually contributed to this success. Even if it didn't bear out immediately on a scoreboard, backup players were forced into bigger roles and slowly growing more comfortable with it. Now that everyone is back, State may be better because of the setbacks than if it went 35-2.
"I wasn't always the spotlight player," Valentine said. "When guys got hurt, I had to step up." There were nights he wound up one of the team's leading scorers.
The players said the public reaction to the less than perfect regular season left a mark, especially when the reason (injuries) seemed obvious.
"It was definitely frustrating," Branden Dawson said.
Izzo has said in the past it's changed the way he's enjoyed a season, the way he enjoys his job. The focus is more internal with the team now. It's more about supporting each other. It's a greater us-against-the-world mentality. About the only positive is that social media makes regular media seem so reasoned, of all things.
Essentially, the few are ruining it for most. That's life. Doesn't mean Tom Izzo has to like it though, even now when State can do no wrong.
"A learning experience," he said of social media this season. "I'll be [the] expert next time."
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