The hard way

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Day 1: Michigan State | Traveling Violations

EAST LANSING, Mich. – His opulent, oversized office is housed in an opulent, oversized "basketball complex." But there are times Tom Izzo can't help but stare out the floor-to-ceiling windows, gaze across the Michigan State campus and wonder exactly what it all means.

Oh this is what he wanted, what he dreamed, what he always believed he could make happen. A decade ago Michigan was Fab and the idea of the Spartans becoming a dominant Big Ten program – never mind a national one – was a pipe dream. Izzo dreamed of the pipe.

He knew the four Big Ten titles, three Final Four appearances and, of course, the 2000 NCAA title were possible. He knew they could pack the Breslin Center, make national television beg him, have donors build temples to success like this office.

But the rub is the hidden curse of college athletics. The more you win, the more championship banners you hang, the more you are expected to keep winning, keep hanging banners.

Anything less is, what?

"It hurt me last year," Izzo said on Wednesday, leaning back in a leather chair here. "I don't think I handled it well."

Michigan State went 18-12 last season, finished one game outside another conference title and advanced to its seventh consecutive NCAA tournament.

Is this good? Is this bad? Is it wrong to ask?

"I guess I've lost perspective," said Izzo, who has to keep reminding himself (and some of his fans) that last year was not a lost year. Not that he wants sympathy.

"I like losing perspective."

No coach cares more about his program than Izzo. Some may care as much, but none can care more. He has spent nearly his entire adult life working for Michigan State basketball, starting in 1983 as a part-time assistant and winding up a full-time local icon.

What he's worked for is more than wins, though. It is a permanent spot in the national elite.

So, blessed with what he thought would be a top-five team, Izzo ramped up what is always a challenging non-conference schedule to include games at Kansas and Syracuse, a home date with Duke, and an incredible spectacle against Kentucky at Ford Field in Detroit that drew a world-record 78,000-plus fans.

It was ambitious, exciting, historic and, according to a lot of his peers, suicidal.

"Some people called it a drudgery schedule," Izzo said. "I called it a dream schedule."

Except Michigan State lost all of the games.

Izzo took some criticism from fans, who like wins more than "experiences." His fragile team's confidence was shaken. Izzo himself experienced self-doubt. Should he put together one of those cupcake schedules that assure a 10-1 non-conference record and no angry talk show callers?

"I could have won 24 games last year by playing 90 percent of the schedules out there," he said.

Is that good? Is that bad? Is it wrong to ask?

Or is it just part of the deal, part of getting the opulent, oversized office inside the opulent, oversized basketball complex…

The thing that makes Izzo great, the thing that will keep Michigan State among the national elite (and they are legit Final Four contenders again) so long as he is coach here is that this stuff bothers him, this stuff makes him think.

And yet, this stuff never changes him.

No matter how many championship trophies are in the lobby of his office, Izzo still considers his program the little underdog in the shadow of Michigan (whose NCAA tournament appearance drought is at six years and counting by the way).

"Michigan is Michigan," Izzo says. "Seventy percent of the media in the state pull for Michigan. Seventy percent of the people in the state are pulling for Michigan, mainly because of football.

"That doesn't bother me, but when you're here, you have to do things."

So he does things. He plays games in football stadiums. He goes home and home with just about anyone – Connecticut, North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky, Syracuse and so on. He revels in the night he got Duke, mighty, mighty Duke, to come to the Breslin Center.

"Duke is Duke," he said.

Since Duke rarely plays non-conference on-campus road games the matchup was, on some level, a victory. Even if the Spartans lost.

"I'm not trying to build a team," Izzo says. "I'm trying to build a program."

He's already built it, actually. So maybe he wants to build some more.

To that end, he'll risk 18-12, the whispers from his fans, the second-guessing. Playing a bunch of directional schools while turning down showdown games won't do it.

"I think I've got a team this year," Izzo said.

They are at Duke, could face Maryland, UCLA visits …

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