Commentary

King of the quick turnaround

Izzo, staff shine when prep time is a precious commodity

Updated: April 6, 2009, 7:54 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Jordan Ott is the video coordinator for the Michigan State basketball team. That's why he has a Diet Coke can in his left hand.

At this sleep-deprived stage of the season, caffeine is mandatory at every waking hour. And almost every hour is a waking hour for the guy in charge of the Spartans' famous preparation machine.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Chris Gardner/US PRESSWIRETom Izzo and his staff have developed a proven track record of maximizing a minimum amount of prep time during the tournament.

"Adrenaline, man," Ott said. "That's all it is right now."

The Spartans are working on the last two-day turnaround of the year -- the last time Tom Izzo's particular brand of coaching genius is at work. Izzo is the king of the quick turnaround in the NCAA tournament: His record is 14-2 in rounds 2, 4 and 6, when the preparation time is condensed to a maximum of 48 hours. The science of that rushed prep exercise is why he's told his team throughout the three weekends of this tourney, "You get me through the first game, I'll get you through the second."

Which means Monday night is Izzo Time for the Spartans.

The coach's job is to find a way to reverse a 35-point beatdown suffered at the hands of North Carolina in December. He knows it won't be easy.

"If we play good and they play good, we're losing," Izzo said. "But we found a way to have some teams not play as good against us."

They've found a way against two straight No. 1 seeds, Louisville and Connecticut. And even at the long odds faced here against the Tar Heels, it's hard not to like Michigan State's chances of finding something in this 48-hour period that could allow the Spartans to shock the world.

If anyone can do it, Izzo is that guy. And he has the help of his assistant coaches and a tireless support staff.

Ott and his video coordinator predecessor, Kevin Pauga, refer to it as "a monster" built in the video computer room at Michigan State's Breslin Center. It is a driven and talented collection of video guys and managers -- annually in demand by NBA teams and other colleges -- who may be the best support staff in college basketball.

"It's almost become a brotherhood back there among the peons," joked Pauga, now a data analyst for the Big Ten. "There's no other teams that do it this way."

The "peons" -- Ott, two graduate assistants and 11 student managers -- tape every game that airs during the college basketball season. Yes, all of them -- roughly 1,800 games.

They are married to video during the season. Pauga, a journalism major at Michigan State with a number-crunching mind more suited to, say, aeronautical engineering, described his social life in eight years at the school as "nonexistent."

Pauga even devised a statistical scheduling model that allows teams to maximize their RPIs -- he calls it the "KPI." Former Izzo assistant Jim Boylen employed it in scheduling at Utah this year, and it produced a No. 9 RPI -- a number that helped inflate the Utes' worth and, ultimately, their seeding. (They were a No. 5, losing handily in the first round to Arizona.)

Pauga estimates that by the time he left last year for the Big Ten office, he'd spent 15 percent of his life in the Spartans' film room. Now Ott is in the same obsessive chair.

"Basically, you just work your ass off," Ott said.

The students work for free, doing it for "gear and experience," Pauga said. But Izzo is a loyal leader, getting to know each manager and his family by name and making sure his players treat them respectfully.

The video staff logs every game, breaking them down by baskets and categories. They've got the definitive video library on everyone. Former Izzo assistants Stan Heath (now at South Florida) and Brian Gregory (now at Dayton) have dispatched staffers to East Lansing just to gather tape on opponents.

When Selection Sunday rolled around and Michigan State's name appeared in the bracket next to Robert Morris, Ott needed only to punch a few buttons to produce seven game films on the Colonials. And so on through the tournament.

Now State is in the midst of the great Carolina breakdown.

It is a succession of short, 20-minute film sessions and ballroom walkthroughs, with a couple of practices sprinkled in between. This is no time to subject the players to a marathon immersion for hours at a time; they need to keep their minds sharp by assimilating smaller information bites.

"It's only 15 or 20 minutes, but it could be as many as five, six times a day," Izzo said. "I think more soaks in."

We're confident he's going to come out with a game plan and have something ready for us. That's why he's coach Izzo, and why he's a Hall of Famer one day. With one preparation day, the things he does are amazing.

-- Michigan State's Travis Walton

They went to work Saturday night in a room at the team hotel, where Ott set up the four video computers the team travels with. When the Spartans returned from Ford Field after the first half of the Heels' victory over Villanova, the coaches were handed the first set of video splices by Ott's crew -- Carolina's vaunted transition game, which ran Michigan State off the court in December.

"Nothing else really matters," Ott said. "The transition game is what we need to stop."

The Spartans sat down together as a team to watch the transition cut-ups. Pizza was served -- "You could quiz the managers right now, and they'd recite what all 16 players want for topping on their pizza," Pauga said -- and a bucket of ice was set next to Izzo. He's a Diet Coke drinker who has to have a cup of ice with his drink, every time. A manager is always assigned to the ice bucket.

After 20 minutes and a few words from Izzo, the players were dismissed to their rooms -- though Travis Walton, the defensive stopper and a video junkie, got a couple more DVDs from Ott to watch on his own. One was the Carolina-Michigan State game from December, which he hadn't watched before. He viewed the first half and turned it off.

"I watch it more for kind of letting it go to rest," Walton said. "Sometimes you've got to lay that behind to go forward."

Meanwhile, in the film room, the coaches and support staff were just getting started. Ott has every machine up and running with Carolina film. Izzo and assistants Dwayne Stephens (who has the Carolina scouting assignment), Mark Montgomery and Mike Garland are viewing games. From time to time, someone will call out something they've found that they want the group to observe and consider.

The breakdowns are similar to the way football teams do it. If they need a splice of Danny Green transition three-pointers, Ott and video assistant Doug Herner can produce it quickly. If they want to show their post players that Deon Thompson likes to shoot over his right shoulder, they've got it. Carolina's trademark traps out of timeouts? Check.

Friends like former NFL coach Steve Mariucci and former Izzo assistants drop by to watch some tape, suggest an X-and-O alteration on the whiteboard, or briefly shoot the breeze.

"It's just this ultimate war-room feeling," Pauga said. "It's the best time. 'Iz' kind of lets his guard down a little bit. Everyone's kind of busting each other's chops."

Izzo likes to keep a packet of every opponent's box scores handy, flipping through them in search of something useful that could then be found on film.

The goal is to find an opponent that plays a style similar to Michigan State's, then see what that opponent did successfully and unsuccessfully against the Tar Heels.

[+] EnlargeTravis Walton
Bob Donnan/US PresswireTravis Walton is a video junkie whose preparation has helped him to become the Spartans' defensive stopper.

"Doesn't do me any good to go watch film of somebody zoning North Carolina because we're not going to do much of that," Izzo said. "Or some team like a Missouri, who presses the whole game, because we're not going to do much of that. You try to find teams that are somewhat comparable who's given them trouble."

Izzo thought he had something from Virginia Tech and Florida State -- until he realized the Heels' star point guard, Ty Lawson, didn't play in those games. So it was back to the film search.

Ott stayed at it until 3 a.m. Sunday. Then he was meeting with the team five hours later with a new day's worth of film.

Ott started off the Spartans' Sunday with a highlight tape of their tournament run to date, to get the juices flowing for the day. Then State ate breakfast and watched personnel splices on the Tar Heels.

Then it was across the hallway to a ballroom with a court taped on the floor, to implement what they just saw on film. (That's another managerial duty, taping down the floor.)

After that, Michigan State headed to Ford Field for media sessions and a closed practice on the court. It will be radically different when the Spartans return Monday night to play before a massive State-favoring crowd.

In addition to the formal scouting report, there was to be more film work and walkthrough work Sunday night. Then one more round of film, walkthrough and practice Monday, the longest day of the year, before that 9:20 p.m. tipoff that decides everything.

"We're confident he's going to come out with a game plan and have something ready for us," Walton said. "That's why he's coach Izzo, and why he's a Hall of Famer one day. With one preparation day, the things he does are amazing."

Pauga doesn't know who will win Monday night. But he does know that Michigan State will not be surprised by much of anything it sees from North Carolina.

"I know it," he said. "I'm not even questioning it. If Michigan State gets beat, it'll be by a better team."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.