EAST LANSING, Mich.–Tom Izzo hasn’t been this happy in at least 10 years.
During this past Tuesday’s media day, while joking and laughing, the Michigan State coach said he’s trying to enjoy the accomplishments that have highlighted his illustrious 21-year head-coaching career with the Spartans.
He won a national title in 2000. He’s won the Big Ten seven times. He’s won the conference tournament four times, with his most recent victory in 2014, and he’s made 18 straight trips to March Madness.
But he’s not fully satisfied. He wants title No. 2, there is no doubting that. But since reaching his seventh Final Four, the Michigan State coach has become a bit looser and a tad more casual than normal.
“He’s still very intense, you know, just as intense as last year,” said senior Bryn Forbes, grinning. “But I think he’s a little more calm. I’ve seen a little more… he’s chilled out a little bit.”
The calm sense of balance is due to a couple of things. Izzo compared this year’s team, depth-wise, to the 2005 Final Four team, which had guards Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager, two NBA first-rounders, and forward/center Paul Davis, a second-rounder.
Secondly, Izzo has a nice freshman class waiting to complement his returning firepower from the 2015 Final Four team. For the most part, everyone played well during the team’s recent trip to Italy. Freshman forward Deyonta Davis got his feet wet. Junior forward Gavin Schilling has a renewed spark.
And Izzo has potential Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine, a senior who makes the team operate like a machine.
“With eight returning players, most of them started at least in one game last year because we did move some people around with some injuries,” Izzo said of his pool of talent. “We’ve had four or five of those players that have started 17 games or more. So I think we’re going to have a combination of experience and depth, and yet enough youth and young guys coming in that it should make a real difference.”
Izzo doesn’t really talk about the next recruiting class. But so far, it looks like he’ll have the No. 1-ranked 2016 haul, per 247Sports.
That’s enough to make any coach happy.
But there is more.
“I think it’s probably because we work,” Forbes said. “This team’s work ethic is crazy. Anytime I’m in the gym, no matter what time of the day, I’m going to see two, three other people here with me. Especially with our new strength coach (Todd Moyer), too–the things he’s done with us this us. This summer’s been a difficult one, but I think it’s really going to help during the season.”
Being compared to the 2005 team is flattering, but it doesn’t take a head-to-head to realize that the 2015-16 Spartans are capable of finishing what they started in 2014-15.
“Yeah, maybe a little bit,” said the 6’3,” 190-pound shooting guard when asked if the comparison brings pressure. “I think we’ve got high expectations for ourselves either way, you know. I think we want more than we got last year. I think that motivated us a little bit more to reach a little bit higher this year.”
Back in April, the Spartans–who were on the NCAA bubble just weeks earlier–were manhandled in the national semis, 81-61, by the eventual national champion Duke Blue Devils. That loss left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
One would think getting close, yet so far away (20-point loss), would make him a bit crazier than usual–but it hasn’t. In a way, it’s almost like he’s slowed down to truly enjoy those “small victories” that have led to bigger triumphs.
Freshman Kyle Ahrens hasn’t been around long enough to see the several layers of Izzo, so he’s not exactly sure how much Izzo has changed since the 2014-15 season. The 6’5,” 210-pound shooting guard will see those different sides of Izzo in time, but for now, he’s pretty used to the one he gets on a daily basis.
“He’s always pushing us, each and every day, and he always has that energy during practice,” said Ahrens, who’s decision to attend Michigan State was largely based on coaching. “He’s going to make us the best team that we can possibly be.”