- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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It's finally time to acknowledge something: Michigan State -- yes, Michigan State -- has arguably been college basketball's top program over the past 10 years.
There, it's been said. Now let the e-mails and message boards outside of East Lansing implode.
But if you disagree, you had better bring a lot of ammunition, because the Spartans have plenty on their side. Yes, we know. It's not what mainstream America is used to hearing, but it's the truth.
Tom Izzo was the handpicked successor of Jud Heathcote, and all Izzo has done is make the Spartans one of the most consistent programs in the country. Over the past 10 seasons, Michigan State has the most Final Four appearances of any school in the nation (four) and also has a fifth Elite Eight appearance in that span.
The Spartans have a national title, four conference championships and two conference tournament titles to go with 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances (the fifth-longest streak in the nation).
Want more? Michigan State has had NBA draft picks (10 since 2000) and graduates (29 out of the 35 players who completed their four years on campus earned a degree). The Spartans have excelled on their home court, posting a 141-13 record (72-8 Big Ten) and selling out the 14,759-seat Breslin Center for 145 consecutive games. They also have an elite practice facility in the Berkowitz Basketball Complex, and are consistently good in recruiting, bringing in eight McDonald's All-Americans and five players who were named Mr. Basketball in Michigan.
Here are four more of my favorite stats:
• Over the past 10 years, Michigan State played 32 ranked nonconference opponents in the regular season, including 20 in the top 10. MSU also played Kentucky twice during that period when the Wildcats were unranked.
• Izzo has had to deal with quite a bit of staff turnover, with six assistants leaving for head coaching jobs in the past 10 years.
• Few schools have as much of a defined basketball identity as Michigan State, which led the Big Ten in rebounding eight of the past 10 years and was ranked in the top 10 nationally six times.
• Every four-year player recruited by Izzo in the past 10 years has played in at least one Final Four.
That last one may be the one that pushes the Spartans over the top. Think about that: Izzo can legitimately claim that if a player stays for all four years, he's got a real shot at being in a Final Four.
Oh, and if we want to really rub it in the rest of the Big Ten, every team in the league has had a coaching change during Izzo's 12-year tenure, with seven of the 10 schools having three coaches during his run. Izzo once considered leaving East Lansing -- for the chance to coach the Atlanta Hawks -- but he stayed.
What does Izzo have to say about all this?
"Someone has to bring all of this up since I never look at it, but when I see it on paper, I say, 'Damn, that's pretty good,'" Izzo said. "We've lost two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior [early to the NBA draft] and we're not the type of school that can recruit easily. We're not Duke or North Carolina. I feel privileged that we're in that spot, but we've earned it."
The 2005 Final Four run may have been the most significant. Reaching St. Louis after three straight Final Fours from 1999 through 2001 was the most telling sign that Izzo had built a power program, not just a great team that had a nucleus to sustain those three previous Final Four squads.
"That was the biggest one," Izzo said. "We didn't drop off."
Izzo points to all the defections, from Jason Richardson to Zach Randolph to those that shouldn't have left early like Marcus Taylor and Erazem Lorbek, to illustrate the number of hits the Spartans have had to withstand.
In 2003-04, he put together a brutal nonconference schedule -- including Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse -- that resulted in a 5-6 start. MSU didn't fall flat, though, rallying to make the NCAA Tournament at 18-11 before losing to Nevada in the first round.
The next season, the Spartans were back in the Final Four after knocking off Duke and Kentucky in consecutive games in the Austin Regional, only to lose to eventual champ North Carolina in the national semifinal.
It would be easy to anoint Duke as the top program over the past 10 years, but Michigan State's nonconference schedule, its ability to withstand losing assistants, the Final Fours (one more than Duke) and the facilities give the Spartans the nod, in one writer's opinion.
Arizona has been a model of consistency, but doesn't have the number of Final Fours to show for it (even though it can match MSU with its tough schedules). Kentucky, North Carolina, Connecticut, Maryland and Syracuse all have had a dip; all except Kentucky have missed the NCAA Tournament at least once during the past 10 years.
Florida's run has been extremely impressive. The Gators do have three Final Fours and two national titles, but they also had some early exits and weren't the dominant team in the SEC (Kentucky was) early on under Billy Donovan. The nonconference schedule and staff changes still would favor MSU.
Kansas has its points, too, weathering a head coaching change, overall staff changes and NBA draft defections to consistently make the NCAA Tournament and make deep runs. The Jayhawks, though, don't have as many Final Four appearances, a title or comparable facilities.
That leaves the Spartans, who just keep plugging along.
"We've [even] lost video guys to the NBA," Izzo said. "It's hard on me to keep the continuity. I was talking to Drew Neitzel about this and he was recruited by Mike Garland and Brian Gregory, and then Doug Wojcik had him for a year, Jim Boylen had him for two years, and now he'll have Garland back again [who replaced Boylen] on the staff. It's hard on the player and the coach to survive all of that.
"That's what I consider us, I consider us survivors."
If you think for a second that anything in East Lansing will start faltering, think again. Just look at what Michigan State has going for itself in 2007-08 and beyond:
• The Spartans were 23-12 last season against the nation's ninth-best schedule and return 97.8 percent of their scoring, 97.5 percent of their rebounding, 97.1 percent of their assists and 96.8 percent of their players' minutes from last season.
• Neitzel, likely the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and a possible national player of the year candidate, returns along with Travis Walton and Raymar Morgan as the core of the team. There also is a top-five recruiting class with guards Chris Allen, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, and 7-foot center Tom Herzog is ready to play after redshirting.
• The Spartans were sixth nationally in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense, and eighth in rebounding margin.
• The Spartans recently received an oral commitment from top-five player Delvon Roe, who graduates from high school in 2008.
"I'm as excited about the future as I have been in a while," Izzo said. "We've got the balance back in our classes. We've got all the pieces. I think we can get back [to the Final Four] again.
"It's funny, programs have been recruiting against me, saying that I'd be gone, gone to the NBA, and I've had my chances but I'm still here and a number of the coaches who were saying that are gone. It was an interesting thing [with the Hawks], but I have no regrets. We still maintain a tough schedule, we've put guys in the pros, we're graduating players at a humongous number, we've got the guys that weren't as highly recruited like Neitzel and [former MSU player Maurice] Ager. We've done it with different kinds of kids. Our crowds are great.
"Getting to the NCAA Tournament [this past season] was huge for us. That was our 10th year in a row. We've had the Final Fours, the championship, but there were a couple of years in a row that we didn't do as well, maybe because of injuries. But we still got in. We withstood some things. And despite not having the rep, we were able to reload."
Let the debate rage, but it might be hard to unseat Michigan State as the top program of the past 10 years.
Senior writer Andy Katz covers college basketball for ESPN.com.
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