|Tom Izzo always finds a way to get his teams ready for March. (usatoday.com)|
It’s a formula that Michigan State fans probably don’t particularly enjoy. It causes a bit more stress and worry in November, but the end result surely makes up for the early heartache. It seems that over the past half decade or so, Michigan State drops a couple early games, usually due to the strenuous schedule Izzo puts together on a yearly basis, yet the Spartans bounce back and make a run into the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Don't believe me? Let's take a look:
Michigan State had two losses to Maryland and No. 1 UNC by Dec. 3 and lost two more to non-ranked Big Ten teams Northwestern and Penn State by Feb. 1, yet advanced all the way to the National Championship game where the Spartans fell to UNC.
Again, a No. 11 UNC team gets the better of Michigan State early, as well as Florida and No. 2 Texas as MSU has three losses before Christmas. Even a three-game losing streak in early February didn’t stop Izzo’s club from making a run in March and reaching the Final Four.
This was a down year for the Spartans, who struggled all season, failing to reach the 20-game win mark and lost in the first round of the tournament to seven-seed UCLA. It's nearly impossible for a program to keep a level of success this high every year.
Back-to-back losses to No. 1 UNC and No. 6 Duke to start the season had the country writing off Michigan State early. Maybe part of the reason was the poor play of the season before, but the Spartans fell off the radar early on, despite not losing again until Jan. 14. MSU was definitely on people’s radars late in the year, winning the Big Ten Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 before eventual-Final-Four member Louisville ended the Spartans season.
This year has been mostly the same. The Spartans lost the first game of the year to a UCONN team that was without Jim Calhoun for the first time and facing NCAA sanctions. Despite winning against Kansas the following game, MSU then lost to Miami in late November (now this doesn’t seem bad but hindsight is 20/20) and then No. 9 Minnesota (this one looks a bit worse now) on the road on New Year's Eve. Yet since 2013 began, the Spartans have only lost one game to now-No. 1, then-No. 7 Indiana and have wins over No. 11 Ohio State, No. 18 Minnesota and No. 4 Michigan. The Spartans have regained a spot in the top 10 and are one of the hottest teams in the country.
Which brings us to our valuable lesson. The season is a long one, and a team can be very different in March than it was in November, especially if it is coached by a man like Izzo. His teams consistently improve throughout the course of the season and seem to use early losses as lessons on toughness and how to get better. Many of the losses covered above were to very talented and highly ranked opponents, which Izzo is known to scatter throughout the schedule to give his players a taste of what it’s like to play the best of the best. Izzo’s trial-by-fire approach means his Spartan teams have experienced it all, and while the record won’t always be as pretty as others, his teams will always be ready for when it counts in March.
Yet people still tend to look past the Spartans after the second or third early loss each year and Izzo keeps proving why that is not wise. As we get closer to Selection Sunday, go ahead and throw Michigan State into the pile of teams that could make a run at the Final Four, because recent history has proven discounting this program before March is rarely a smart decision.
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