What does this Final Four berth mean to Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans?
It is a question that columnists, bloggers and Twitter prognosticators have been trying to answer ever since the Spartans downed Louisville to earn the East Regional crown. The consensus seems to be that this is Izzo’s best coaching job and the most unlikely run the Spartans have ever had, thus the most special. Proof that March’s most lauded coach is worth every bit of praise.
Giving context to this run is problematic though. Does one Final Four appearance have more inherent value than another? It’s difficult to quantify, and a question probably better suited for the math wizards at FiveThirtyEight, but let's take a crack at it just the same.
What We Know
Izzo has now made seven Final Four appearances, which means that he has more than any coach since he took the reigns of the program in 1995. This is the lowest seeded team he has ever guided to the National Semifinals, besting the previous lows in 2005 and 2010; both teams were No. 5 seeds.
Certainly this has to mean the world to a team who has never experienced such heights. Seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson watched as former teammates Keith Appling and Adreian Payne were reduced to tears after a loss in the Elite 8 to Uconn last season. They became the first senior class under Izzo not to make at least one Final Four. Reaching that pinnacle had been the team’s rallying cry all year, one that the 2014-15 Spartans adopted as well.
"In the summer, we would all text each other, ‘Indy, Indy, Indy,’" junior guard Denzel Valentine said. "We would say that every huddle."
That was until Izzo decided he needed to put a stop to those talks after a loss to Illinois at the Breslin Center in early February.
"I said ‘That’s over,’ Izzo said. "We’re not talking about Indy. We’re not worthy of it. We haven’t played well enough. We haven’t played hard enough."
The Spartans galvanized as March drew nearer though, as Izzo led teams have a penchant to do, winning 15 of its last 18 games en route to Lucas Oil Stadium. The stretch included wins over No. 2 seed Virigina, No. 3 seed Oklahoma and finally the No. 4 seed Louisville Cardinals in the Regional Final. In the post-win bliss that followed the defeat of the Cardinals, Izzo was asked amidst a pack of reporters, where this Final Four ranks among his many others.
"It'll go down as the best one, just because of all we went through all year," Izzo said. "It doesn't mean I'm separating a lot of my great guys from anything, but this team probably had the least chance to get there, and so that's going to make it a little special."
Even Mateen Cleaves, a member of the Spartans 2000 national championship team, said in an interview with Nina Mandell of USA TODAY Sports that he agreed that this run is the most special.
"You know what, it should be (Izzo’s favorite)," Cleaves said. "That was not to be expected. When we came in my senior year, we were the number one team in the country coming in before I broke my foot at the beginning of the season. So it was kind of to be expected that we would get back to the Final Four."
So that’s it right? This is Izzo’s best run, his Sistine Chapel. There are certainly people making that claim, but it’s not as simple as that. At a press conference following the Spartans Regional Championship victory, Izzo was asked the same question about rating his Final Four teams. With the net cut and the green and white faithful having filed out of the Carrier Dome, the longtime Spartan coach gave a more measured response.
"They were all different in a lot of ways, but I think this was the most improbable because the team had lost some games and we had gone through some things," Izzo said.
There is a strong case to be made for most improbable. This Spartans team entered the tournament with 11 losses, three more than the 2010 Final Four team, the next closest. No other Michigan State team spent as much of season unranked before making such a deep run. Izzo had to wait until mid-February for his team to get its first win over a ranked opponent, the longest such stretch. And no other team had to endure serious questions about whether they would even make the tournament like this one did.
With that said, it does well to remember that many believed the Spartans had been slighted with the No. 7 seed, given the way the team played to close the season. Despite the lower seed, Michigan State was the Vegas favorite in all but one matchup, against No. 2 seed Virginia in the second round.
It is hard to call this trip to Indy better than Izzo’s second, the one that netted him a national championship. Is the coaching Izzo has done in this tournament really any better than the job he did in 2010 when Michigan State lost Kalin Lucas in its second round game against Maryland? Are Spartan fans any more endeared to this team than they were the 2009 group that featured Draymond Green, and played virtual home games at Ford Field in the Final Four and National Championship?
The answers from every fan or analyst will undoubtedly differ. It’s easy to call this the best run Izzo has ever had, because it’s the one that just unfolded in front of our eyes. This Final Four does not define Tom Izzo or Michigan State, nor should it change vastly change the public’s opinion of either. It merely confirms what we already knew coming in.
Tom Izzo is phenomenal in the tournament, Michigan State is an elite program and anything can happen in March.