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Deeper Dive: The Underappreciated Tom Izzo

by Photo of Tommy Dee

Michigan State’s coach proving once again that his team is ready to win at the right time.

Deeper Dive: The Underappreciated Tom Izzo

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes" - Benjamin Franklin

I posed a question to my fantasy baseball league friends on WhatsApp earlier to day in regards to who are the greatest NCAA coaches in NCAA Tournament history. Who came to mind immediately was an interesting exercise. Now, I don't make a regular habit of decision making through social means, but this particular group of individuals knows their stuff when it comes to sports, particularly hoops.  

John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, were the consensus first 5 and a group that cannot be challenged. The sixth? Tom Izzo. 

What puts Izzo in this elite group? His performances in March. Of those other five coaches, none have the career 13-1 record in first and second round games. Izzo has used this record to generate momentum that has led to an astonishing 15 wins over higher seeds, six Final Four appearances and one national championship in 2000. The monicker "Mr. March" bestowed by fivethirtyeight.com fits him like a glove. While his advanced coaching stats are remarkable, what's equally as impressive is when you look at the aforementioned greats (K aside) can anyone name their successors? Did you guess Gene Bartow, Bill Guthridge and Mike Davis? Following up legendary coaches who've had incredible successes is much harder than it looks, but that's just what Izzo has done at East Lansing since the retirement of Jud Heathcote. 

Granted, Heathcote is not of the elite caliber but you may remember he recruited and landed a young, smiley and rambunctious Earvin Johnson, who would quickly win over the basketball world, and an NCAA Championship in 1979 before transforming the NBA game in the 1980s. Heathcote would win 560 games in 19 seasons at Michigan State and, aside from Magic, was Spartans Basketball for well over two decades. He's still revered, but seemingly every March Izzo supplants himself as one of the greatest college coaches in the history of the game. This season marks number 20 for Izzo, who has won 20 or more games 15 times. He's approaching 500 wins. He's produced dozens of professionals (13 NBA draft picks, 6 taken in the first round) and has won with guys you probably have forgotten. He's won with every different type of player imaginable from Mateen Cleeves to Draymond Green. His "system" players come in all shapes and sizes but all share the same toughness and resiliency.

What's his secret? That's a good question and one that was posed recently when talking about this team specifically.

"I get a lot of credit from our football coach when he says, you know, I look across, you've taught us how to win championships," Izzo said. "The last couple years he's taught me that our seniors have to be good down the stretch and that's what he preaches to his team and it's been good for me and my team."

Spoken with the same humility that Izzo has carried all of his life. It's never about him, it's about his players, which is why one can surmise with great ease it's the reason he consistently gets the responsiveness from his seniors. He believes tough players win and that players determine their minutes, not him. That's how you teach true earning. There's an understanding and singular focus that Izzo's team has that translates so perfectly during the Madness. They are durable, they are balanced and they can take their show on the road. This particular edition has five guys who can lead them in scoring on any given night led by guard Travis Trice and they are shooting a remarkable 47% from the field and 39% from three. Here's a deeper look at the statistics.

The Numbers: Sports-Reference.com

Record: 25-11 

Offensive Rating: 110.3 (37th)

Defensive Rating: 97.4 (87th)

Simple Rating: 17.45 (17th) 

Xs and Os Breakdown: Win over Virginia (Watch)

Quote Worthy

"Digging deeper into the numbers only solidifies Izzo’s reputation as Mr. March. A few years ago, FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote about how unlikely Izzo’s teams were to have consistently advanced as far as they did from the seeds at which they started — and that was at the very beginning of the five-season stretch (from 2010-present) where the Spartans advanced to four regional semifinals and one regional final. By any standard, Izzo’s teams tend to wildly exceed their expectations once the NCAA tournament commences. We can track where Izzo ranks among all tournament coaches in the 64-team bracket era by comparing his actual wins to the number we’d expect of a team with the same seedings and pre-tournament Simple Rating System (SRS) ratings. And — spoiler alert — he’s No. 1 by a wide margin."- fivethirtyeight.com

Inside/Out Game Creates High Percentage Shots

The Conclusion

A coach's legacy is based on titles but no one can argue that Izzo's consistency in March moves him up the all-time overall ladder. He produces the epitome of what teams are from focus and togetherness. This particular team, which struggles from the free throw line shooting a shocking 63%, has overachieved to this point and you'd think that they may just have one more win in them. It just seems every time you go ahead and dismiss an Izzo coached team they use it as even more motivation for victory. Next thing you know they are in yet another Final Four. 

One thing is for certain: every March Tom Izzo continues to build on what has been an already decorated coaching career, and he's firmly entrenched in the conversation of greatest NCAA Tournament coaches of all time.    

Schedules via CBSsports.com

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