Tom Izzo searches for consistent effort
Spartans coach hopes to find it, but has stiff challenge in ACC/Big Ten Challenge
Tom Izzo has been to six Final Fours in the last 12 seasons at Michigan State, a run unmatched by any other coach in the country during that span.
Yet when Izzo sits down to measure his success and that of his Spartans teams, he doesn't look to the rafters for the number of banners hung there or at the trophy case for the assembled hardware.
He looks on the basketball court, in the hopes of seeing a team that doesn't change from Game 1 to game over.
Izzo hasn't seen it yet at Michigan State.
In fact, he's seen it in only one other place in the country.
"What I love about Duke is they never have letdowns. Who else can you say that about?" Izzo said. "That's the biggest compliment I can give them, more impressive than the four national championships Mike [Krzyzewski] has won. If they're supposed to beat a team by 20, they beat them by 30. To get a team to play the same instead of at the level of the team they're playing, and to do it from Game 1 to Game 30, that's my goal. It's not another Final Four. It's that consistency.''
The Spartans can take a step toward that when they travel to face the program Izzo believes set the standard. The hype over Michigan State's game at Duke (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), the marquee matchup in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, has diminished some with the Spartans' loss to then-unranked Connecticut in Maui.
But whether the Spartans are ranked No. 2 (prior to the loss) or No. 6 (after), they remain among a pack of teams that are perhaps no more than a notch below Duke.
"I said at the start of the season, 'Why are we No. 2?'" Izzo said. "You know what someone told me? Well, somebody's got to be.''
The Blue Devils have done nothing to relinquish their stranglehold as the team to beat. Through six games, Duke has beaten its opponents by an average of 28 points. That includes a 14-point dismembering of Kansas State on Nov. 23.
So we know Duke is good.
The question is, what about Michigan State? Tabbed the 1A to the Devils' 1, do the Spartans remain the team best suited to challenge Duke's hope of a repeat title?
Izzo schedules like a masochist, so the fact that the Spartans have lost a game already shouldn't exactly set off warning flares. Michigan State lugged eight losses to the Final Four last season, including three earned outside the Big Ten, and six to the Final Four in 2008-09, two of which came outside the conference.
"We're used to people jumping off the bandwagon after we lose early and jumping back on when we're still playing late in March. I love it. It's hilarious,'' Draymond Green said. "But we play games in December that make us better. We might lose some and that takes some getting used to. I'm a junior, and I still struggle with it because I hate losing. I just hate it. But I also know that we could go play a bunch of patsies and not really get better.''
What is more pertinent is where does Michigan State, a team Izzo labels "a work in progress," sit on its learning curve?
Against Duke, the Spartans could be their own worst enemy. Michigan State has reached double digits in turnovers in each of its first six games, coughing it up multiple times against competition far less worthy than Duke (20 against Eastern Michigan, 17 against Tennessee Tech).
It's a tragedy of errors that could play directly into Duke's hands. The Blue Devils love to pressure the ball and turned multiple teams into the Bad News Bears already this year. Princeton, a team known for its ball control offense, was forced into 27 turnovers in the season opener, and Kansas State spilled the ball a disastrous 21 times.
Izzo understands where some of the mistakes are coming. He intentionally moved Kalin Lucas off the ball in Maui, hoping the position switch would give Lucas and his still recovering Achilles a break as the Spartans played three games in three days.
But some of them are the equivalent of tennis' unforced errors, silly mistakes borne out of carelessness, not effort.
Those have to go against Duke.
"That's been a point of emphasis in practice this week, as you might guess,'' Izzo said with a chuckle.
Yeah, you could say that.
"Oh yeah, it's been a huge point of emphasis,'' Green said. "Every time someone makes a mistake like that in practice, something is said. It has to be. We can't play like that, especially against a team like we're facing now.''
While Izzo prepped for the game against the Blue Devils, he watched ESPNU's All-Access with Duke. His ears pricked up when he heard players talk about how much they benefited from playing together all summer.
Michigan State didn't have that luxury. Saddled with injuries at every turn, the Spartans are finding their way on the court when the games actually count. Mix in Green's switch from power forward to wing and Derrick Nix's sudden return and you've got a top-10 team still working out the kinks.
Izzo knows no one will be breaking out a symphony of violins in sympathy for him anytime soon. He brings much of it on himself, scheduling a murderers' row of games -- Connecticut, Washington, Duke, Syracuse and Texas (not to mention Keith Benson and Oakland) -- that doesn't allow much room for error, let alone growing pains.
But as Izzo chases his own definition of success, one not measured merely in the win-loss columns, he's not terribly interested in taking the easy way.
"I could go out and schedule a bunch of dogs and go 12-0,'' Izzo said. "And I'm sure one of these years I'm going to get bit by it because the confidence will go down and people will be on you, but I'm going to do this as long as I'm here. It's about what I'm trying to do here, what I'm trying to build. I want a team without any letdowns.''
A team like Duke.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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