- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Nestled in a corner of Tom Izzo's Michigan State memorabilia-filled basement is an iconic Spartans photo of Izzo and Mateen Cleaves, arms around each other, tears welling up in Cleaves' eyes as the Spartans celebrate winning the 2000 national title in Indianapolis.
The photo captured the unbridled joy in the Flint, Mich., native's heart as he helped lead Michigan State to its second national title and the first since another beloved Michigander point guard, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, won the first for the school in 1979.
Cleaves and Izzo still share an incredible bond, as Izzo honored Cleaves' late mother, Frances, this spring with a wall-sized collage just off the Breslin Center lobby in the Frances Cleaves Family Center.
As Izzo gave ESPN.com a tour of his cherished Michigan State possessions in his East Lansing home last week, he was asked whether he would coach someone like Cleaves again.
He said, in fact, he might be doing that right now.
His name is Kalin Lucas, coincidentally another Michigan native, this time from hard-hit Detroit. The junior point guard is the Big Ten preseason player of the year, and he has high expectations for his team. The same expectations met by the turn-of-the-century Spartans.
"We're pretty much trying to do the same thing," Lucas said as he looked up to the Breslin Center rafters to see the Final Four banners of the teams from 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005 and the one he led in 2009. "We got there last year. We didn't win it, but we're trying to get it this year."
The similarities between MSU's run from 1999 to 2001 -- the Spartans went to three straight Final Fours with a title in the middle after losing the previous year -- is hard to miss with the current program. Michigan State saved the 2009 Final Four in Detroit, a program-changing event as the city became a sea of green and white for four days.
Now the Spartans are back in the thick of the race, ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll and thus one of the favorites to reach the Final Four. The big event will be in Indianapolis this season. The arena has changed from the RCA Dome to the newly built Lucas Oil Stadium, but the prospect of playing in the heart of Big Ten country is still constant.
Izzo didn't hide how much he wanted to get to Detroit last season. Sparty had played North Carolina in a Final Four primer at Ford Field in December. It got whacked in that game, but the passion to get back to Motown never waned.
When the bracket came out, Izzo couldn't believe the path. The Spartans had to get by one of the better 10-seeds he said he has ever coached against in USC, take out No. 2 Kansas for the second time in the season and then push past consecutive No. 1 seeds Louisville in the Elite Eight and Connecticut in the national semifinals before meeting Carolina once again.
"It was such a dream," Izzo said, reflecting on the NCAA tournament run. "Not many places went through what Michigan and Detroit were going through. It's such a blue-collar city with all the car industry down there. It's a working man's world down there. We piggybacked off that, but North Carolina had a cause too."
But the memories of that Final Four weekend haven't been forgotten by any of the returning players or Izzo. There was a pep rally at a suburban Detroit mall the day before the UConn game that has been captured with a wraparound photo above the stairwell heading from the basketball offices down to the Breslin Center floor.
Izzo was asked to bring the team to the mall for a pep rally. He had no idea what he would find. He was told there would be some folks, but the turnout was in the 8,000-10,000 range.
When the Spartans got out to Ford Field for the first open practice, he said he told Lucas to be prepared for 15,000-20,000, not the 25,000-30,000 who arrived. And then the next night, he took his team on the floor against UConn in front of 74,000 fans.
"I said to Kalin as we were walking out there, 'Did I tell you the truth?' He said, 'No, you lied to me. It's better,'" Izzo said. "You could pick so many things -- was it the mall, was it the practice, was it the Connecticut game, was it watching all the people or driving on the street and seeing it on the streets of Detroit. Lots of the times when there has been major events [in Detroit], there has been chaos."
That's why the 2009 Final Four, for Izzo, has in some ways become the favorite of his five. The event also allowed an incredible streak to continue. Every player who has finished his senior season with Izzo at Michigan State has played in a Final Four.
"Every once in a while I'd hear Travis Walton say in the locker room, 'I don't want to be the one that doesn't get there," Izzo said of his former senior guard. "I didn't know what he meant for a while. He was obsessed with not being the first class that didn't make it."
That passion to continue an Izzo legacy, to be a part of the basement wall that all the players have been through, means something to them. The comparison with this season's lot to the Cleaves, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson crew isn't far-fetched.
"This group might not be as experienced, and Kalin is a bit of a different point guard than Mateen in his own way," Izzo said. "But Raymar [Morgan] is experienced on the wing, and Durrell [Summers] and Chris Allen are two guys that could have explosive years. And if they do all that, then things could be very similar."
Injuries have been a bit of an issue early on. Morgan sprained his ankle in a recent practice and might miss the Nov. 13 regular season opener. The Spartans also need the healthy return of forward Delvon Roe, a former big-time high school scorer who was limited last season after having microfracture surgery as a high school senior two years ago. He suffered a concussion in a recent exhibition game but should be OK for the opener.
And although he's been hampered by a minor ankle injury this preseason, guard Korie Lucious should also be fine for this season after a stress fracture slowed him down at times last season. Now he fits right in with Lucas, Allen and Summers on a productive perimeter.
Sure, Izzo laments the departure of last year's senior class: Walton for his defense, Goran Suton for his scoring, passing and vocal leadership in the locker room and Idong Ibok for his size inside. But the bodies inside can be serviceable with Draymond Green, Tom Herzog and freshman Derrick Nix.
There is no dominating team like Carolina a season ago. For all the warts that Izzo likes to point out about his team, it's no different from fellow title contenders Kansas, Texas, Purdue, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Quoting Texas football coach Mack Brown, Izzo said a coach doesn't truly know his team until four or five games into a season.
Michigan State will get pushed in the Big Ten. The league will demand excellence every night with two games against Purdue that could determine the league champ and a possible No. 1 seed. Playing Illinois twice, Ohio State once, rivalry games against Michigan and two games against upstart Northwestern will be daunting. That all comes after another challenging nonconference slate that includes facing Florida at the Legends Classic in New Jersey (Nov. 27), a third game against North Carolina in two years (this time in Chapel Hill) and then playing at Texas on Dec. 22 in what could be a Final Four preview.
"Good isn't good enough; you have to be great to get to the Final Four, to get to that championship," Izzo said. "I'm anxiously awaiting what transpires and takes place."
Back in the basement, Izzo has a wall with framed photos of every team he has coached. He has led his teams to 12 straight NCAA tournaments. He's coached five Final Four teams among that group and may have a sixth on his hands -- with the possibility of a third national title for the school.
Izzo talked about how much he wants a title for all the players who have played at Michigan State, notably the ones from 1979 onward.
"I want it for a lot of people," Izzo said. "I want it for the players, for Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan to experience what it's like to stand up there and win one. It would be the second title [for Izzo] and the third one for our university, and that puts us in a smaller group. Not many people have won three. I want it for the fans. I want it for a lot of people."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
In his expansive basement, Tom Izzo has a memorabilia room that would send chills down the spine of any Michigan State fan. But there's room on the wall for more. Can the defending runner-up create new memories this season?