No stranger to Sweet 16, Izzo makes sure Spartans are well prepared

by | College Basketball Insider
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Sitting in a black sweatsuit in the Marriott's Oakland Ballroom, Tom Izzo leaned forward and hit the pause button. Just an hour or so earlier, Michigan State's coach had learned Memphis would be the Spartans' next opponent. The two teams would meet in less than 48 hours with a Sweet 16 berth on the line. Yet Izzo fixed his focus on a screen showing No. 1 Gonzaga tied with No. 16 Southern with four minutes remaining.

"This is unbelievable," Izzo said.

What was fascinating, during the hours that CBSSports.com was given exclusive access into Izzo's preparation following the team's rout over Valparaiso, was how Izzo was able to juggle numerous tasks without showing any sign of being rattled. Well, except maybe when his son, Steven, started playing with his old man's cell phone or when the 13-year-old reiterated that his bracket had Duke going out to Michigan State in the Sweet 16.

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When Izzo took his seat next to Steven on the bus from the Palace to the hotel following a decisive win over Bryce Drew's Valpo Crusaders, he let out a sigh of relief. One down, one to go for the Spartans to reach the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the past six seasons and 11th time since 1999 -- not that this program strives for such a plateau.

Izzo, who has led MSU to the Final Four six times, winning a national title in 2000, is the Man of March. Mike Krzyzewski has more national championships, but his Duke teams have also possessed more overall talent than have Izzo's, as the Blue Devils will when they meet the Spartans in Indianapolis on Friday night.

To get to the Midwest regional semifinal, the Spartans had to get by Memphis. Izzo was 17-3 in turnaround contests -- the second game of an NCAA tournament weekend -- heading into the matchup on Saturday afternoon, but this one was different. On one hand, since the Spartans had played a rare afternoon game, there was more time for prepare.

"I can't remember the last time we did this," Izzo said. "We always play night games, and usually have the late-night game."

Back at the Marriott, Izzo spied Akron coach Keith Dambrot and his Zips team in an adjacent ballroom, eating their dinner prior to a matchup with VCU. "That's usually us," Izzo said. "This is rare. It's nice to have all this time in between games. Usually, we don't get back to the hotel until 1 a.m."

But even with the relative surplus of time, Izzo remained concerned. This preparation would be different than most. Memphis was scary. Not just because the Tigers could match up with his squad athletically, but because this team could freelance with the best of them. Izzo had already watched two Tigers games from start to finish and determined he didn't need to prepare his team much for Memphis' offense -- he needed to focus on Josh Pastner's personnel.

  

Izzo sat in front of his team as they watched Memphis' first-round game against Saint Mary's on the ballroom screen. The Tigers appeared to be in complete command midway through the second half. However, as he dispatched his players to their rooms to watch the game's conclusion, the 58-year-old coach instructed them to focus on what they would see there.

"One team runs a lot of stuff, and the other has a lot of athletes," Izzo said. "Don't watch the game to watch the game. Try and familiarize yourself with some of the players. I still think Memphis will beat them, but I wouldn't be surprised if Saint Mary's comes back."

Izzo kept an eye on the second half while doing a quick ESPN radio interview and also calling his wife and daughter, who'd returned home to East Lansing after the game. Izzo, however, wasn't alone in the ballroom. Junior forward Adreian Payne had lingered, watching film of the Valpo game on a laptop.

"He never would have done that a year ago," Izzo said. "He's come a long way."

After about 30 minutes, Payne joined his teammates upstairs and Izzo watched the conclusion of Memphis-Saint Mary's. Finally, the sound of the dribbling ball across the ballroom was enough. Izzo asked a former manager, George, if he could take Steven Izzo and George's son out of the room, possibly swimming upstairs.

"I've got to coordinate everything. I bet Krzyzewski doesn't have to deal with this," Izzo laughed. "You've got to love it, though."

  

Memphis nearly melted down late, but wound up with the victory after Gaels star Matthew Dellavedova missed a shot at the buzzer.

By now, Michigan State assistants Mike Garland and Dwayne Stephens were focused on Memphis game tapes from earlier in the season. The third assistant, former Indiana star Dane Fife, was in charge of scouting Memphis. Fife -- who left his job as IPFW's coach because he said the chance to work for Izzo was "too good to pass up" -- was frantically trying to obtain as much intel on the Tigers as he could from colleagues who'd met Pastner's team earlier in the season. By the time Fife and Stephens arrived back at the hotel after watching Memphis-Saint Mary's at the arena, video coordinator Jordan Ott already had the Memphis-Saint Mary's tape ready for viewing.

It was now 7:15 and the scout team, basically a group of walk-ons who help prepare the guys who play, had arrived so Fife could prep them on Memphis' offense.

Izzo continued to do his own study of Memphis.

"We've got to win this game, Dougie," Izzo told his longtime friend and assistant video coordinator Doug Herner. "I want a shot at Duke."

  

Izzo said he has learned over time that you can't overload the players. That's why he goes with an approach of 20-minute video sessions, usually with a meal break before or afterwards in an effort to keep them focused.

"You can't wear them down," he said. "Not now."

All of the players were now in front of the big screen, with the other monitor turned off so they wouldn't become distracted. It was time to run through Memphis' personnel and sets. Fife began by saying the Tigers were terrific at converting bad shots into easy baskets and Izzo quickly interjected.

"They wanna run," he said. "And we wanna run. Let's wear their ass down."

Fife indexed the Tigers players. "Number 3 -- Chris Crawford. He can flat-out shoot it." Izzo chimed in with an amazing stat, that Crawford had averaged more than 10 three point attempts over his previous four games.

"Number 10," Fife continued. "Tarik Black. He's big and strong, but he's not passing it and is a black hole when he gets the ball in the paint ... D.J. Stephens comes up next. No. 30. He's a ridiculous athlete."

"Put a body on him," Izzo demanded. "He jumps out of the gym."

Then it was on to the sets. 'Horns double fist up,' where the Tigers drop their center and pop their four-man out. 'Horns double fist down.' After a few more minutes of the tutorial, Izzo sensed his guys had begun to lose focus. It was time now to utilize the spacious ballroom, and the players moved over to a makeshift court, with tape marking the lane. With the scout team playing the role of Memphis, MSU's starting unit precisely ran through its sets.

Dinner would come next, but Garland and Stephens continued poring through Memphis games on their laptops.

Meanwhile Michigan State sports information director Matt Larson, one of the best in the business, had just woken from a nap -- and was fighting a migraine headache. He asked the team trainer for a few more pills in the hopes of inserting some color in his ghostly complexion. Illness was becoming a mildly worrying theme for this group -- Derrick Nix had vomited at halftime of the Valparaiso game -- but Nix's stomach was fine now and he was enjoying his meal.

  

By 9 p.m. Izzo was still watching film, but appeared relaxed. His team was set to play in the NCAA tournament's Round of 32, but this could have been a preseason exhibition against an NAIA team. He still had one eye on Memphis game film, but was not too distracted to ruminate about subjects including his former assistants Tom Crean and Jim Boylen (an assistant with the NBA's Indiana Pacers), as well as the state of college basketball and how it had changed since he broke in years ago as a graduate assistant.

He could also be heard ripping on Fife, Herner and anyone else within earshot. Izzo has the respect of all his players and coaches, but his ability to connect with them on a personal basis can't be disqualified as a factor in how he's taken Michigan State to elite status -- and why the Spartans will be prepared and relaxed enough to beat Memphis by 22 the next day.

"He has an unbelievable blueprint ... [the] key thing is [his] attention to detail," Dwayne Stephens told me. "Give our guys the information and carry out the game plan."

  

It was 11:30 and Izzo and his staff were still in the Oakland Ballroom, watching tape and looking for anything to give them an edge over Memphis. That's when the team's three freshmen -- Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello -- entered the room looking for their iPads so they could watch more tape prior to the morning meeting. In an hour Izzo and his staff would pack up and head up to their rooms.

As the Marriott elevator door closed, Izzo smiled.

"He lives for this time of year," Stephens explains.

Thirty-six hours later, Izzo would prove once again why he is the King of March.

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