After leading Michigan State to six Final Four appearances in the past 15 seasons, including a national championship in 2000, Tom Izzo still has his eyes firmly on the prize. The Spartans are currently ranked No. 1 in the CBSSports.com poll and are 6-0 after winning the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic this past weekend at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. CBS Sports Network and CBSSports.com's Jon Rothstein sat down with Izzo to discuss this year's Michigan State team, including the evolution of Keith Appling, and the importance of seizing opportunities in the NCAA Tournament.
Jon Rothstein, CBSSports.com: Was it aggravating after such a great win over Kentucky a few weeks ago in the Champions Classic to keep being asked about their team after the game instead of your own?
Tom Izzo: Yeah. It was. I guess we're just going to have to do our talking on the floor. I mean, nobody's bad-mouthing anybody. I like what John (Calipari) is doing. I think he's a hell of a coach, but I feel bad for the kids. I don't feel bad for me. I'm a big boy. They're the ones who stayed and worked and could have left. They almost get ridiculed for staying now. That's bad man. That bums me out and I think a lot of coaches feel that way. It's nothing against the one-and-dones and it's nothing against the four-year guys. There's room to share the wealth.
CBSSports.com: Is it nice in today's day and age with all these one-year players to have a group that's been around and been together for a while?
Izzo: I think it's a shame that all we talk about is the one-and-done players. We're just promoting what everybody, I don't want to say doesn't like, but I mean I'd like to have a one-year player. I don't have a problem with that but I wouldn't trade Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, or Brandon Dawson for anybody. There's more to it, ya know? It's nice to be a part of something. It's nice to have guys like Alan Anderson and Steve Smith in the locker after the game and be a part of something. I don't think you can get that the way it's going now. We're all promoting it. It's a little frustrating but you know what, I'm just going to worry about my guys.
CBSSports.com: It is amazing how much health has made a difference early for you guys compared to a year ago? Guys like Gary Harris, Travis Trice, and Branden Dawson all look like different players than they were at this point last season.
Izzo: It really is true. Trice missed the whole summer and missed 13 games last season. Harris was hurt all year and Dawson, you know he's still a freak. He came back in eight months and never had any issues with the knee itself but he lost all the skill stuff. That's what he needed. Now he's more confident.
CBSSports.com: When you went to back-to-back Final Fours in 2009 and 2010, Draymond Green was a terrific role player as a freshman and sophomore. Does Denzel Valentine have the some of those same attributes?
Izzo: Yeah, definitely. He's not as big as Draymond but he has some of the same qualities because he understands the game. He gets caught a little bit but so did Draymond. He's improving on things. He's a great kid, and he loves the game. He loves the game more than Draymond did as a sophomore. Draymond really fell in love with it as a junior and he got a lot better. Denzel is going to get better this year. He's not as big as Draymond so it's hard to play him at the four and do some goofy things like we did with Draymond, but he's done a lot of good for us early on.
CBSSports.com: What did you do as a coach to get Keith Appling to reach the level he's at right now?
Izzo: He did it. He came in and watched a lot of tape. He started to appreciate that the pass is better than the shot. It's better to give than receive. He gets more fired up now when he gives an assist than when he makes a three-point shot. Keith Appling is the reason that it's really cool for kids to stay in school and try to get better. Some kids come out and never get to that because they never get a chance to. We'll see what happens in the end for him but he's a much better player right now. He's a good kid. He's going to graduate. There's a lot of good things going on there.
CBSSports.com: When you lost to Butler to 2010 in the Final Four, you really talked about how much you really felt like you had a chance to win the whole thing and didn't. As the years go on, do you think about things like that more and more, especially when you have a group as good as you do with this team?
Izzo: I don't think there's any question. We had so many guys hurt that year. Delvon Roe was on half a leg and Raymar Morgan had the ankle issue. Kalin Lucas was out. It was a weird Final Four. I didn't feel like it was one of Duke's best teams. Butler was good. West Virginia was good too, but it wasn't like 2009 or 2001 or 2005, some of the others that I've been in. You know that you may never get back, or if you do get back you don't know if you ever are going to have a real chance. In 2009 we were pretty good but North Carolina would have beaten some NBA teams that year. I learned that every opportunity is one that has to be seized.