Posted by Matt Jones
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Post-game press conferences are rarely interesting or entertaining fare. They usually involve an endless assortment of mind-numbing, monotonous questions spoken by a host of sportswriters desperately seeking fill-in-the-blank quotes to try and meet their impending deadlines without too much effort. Most questions begin with a “tell us a little about when...” intro that is assured to produce nothing of significance from the unfortunate individual assigned to respond and leaves everyone in the room dumber for having to endure its repetition.
But occasionally, regardless of how clueless a particular questioner may be, a moment of clarity can shine through one of these affairs. Such was the case after Purdue’s 86-76 win over Michigan State on Saturday, when Tom Izzo was asked whether the team’s seventh loss of the year signified a need to change his team’s goals for the season.
With obvious frustration, Izzo responded, “I am not changing my goals until I am done...don’t even ask me that question. I am going to try and win the Big Ten Championship until the last day.” Izzo then shook his head in disbelief and added, “changing my goals? No insult, but you have asked me that three weeks in a row. That is a dumb question.”
The message was delivered to a reporter who clearly had an angle he wanted to pursue (“Izzo’s National Championship ambitions now changed!”), but also could have just as easily been aimed at the critics who see Michigan State’s 12-7 record and speak of the Spartan team as a disappointment. Those critics deem Michigan State a disappointment , as it opened the season on the short list of potential national champions and has since fallen off the national radar due to a surprising number of losses.
But to Izzo, such critiques suggest a misunderstanding of his team and how he is developing them for March. When the season began, Izzo says he wrote down potential wins and losses for the year and only one early defeat he has taken, the loss to surprising Penn State, wasn’t one he then thought possible. The other six losses are all to teams currently ranked in the Top 25 and more of a product of the Michigan State philosophy, which suggests that taking your bumps in December leads to success in March.
That doesn’t mean that this Michigan State team hasn’t disappointed Izzo early this season. He surely assumed that while it was possible to lose to six ranked teams, at least a couple of those games would have ended up in the win column. But unfortunately, this group has had to improve a great deal from early in the year, something that has been a bit disappointing. “We are not a program that should be growing,” Izzo said, “but I hate to say that we are.”
Izzo sees improvement and clearly believes that critics who have dismissed his group, or suggest that the goal of a Big Ten Championship is impossible, are missing the boat. He knows that there are more numbers in the loss column than he would like, but says he believes this is the most loaded Big Ten of his Michigan State tenure and that he assumes the Spartans will see benefit from their non-conference schedule in March. “If the NCAA does what it says it will, then our schedule should be rewarded and not used against us.”
Yet even if a reward is waiting come Selection Sunday, it remains to be seen whether this team can take advantage and make as stunning a run in the Tournament as last year’s group. The Spartans got hot at the right time last season, were fortunate when their bracket opened up after an early defeat by No. 1 seed Kansas and then won a thriller over a less tournament-tested Tennessee team to make the Final Four. Such good fortune two years in a row would be rare.
But for Tom Izzo, even though his team has progressed slower than he had hoped, the schedule ahead is still daunting and luck is unlikely to be as kind, it doesn’t change how he views March . “The tournament is a guard’s game and we have good guards,” Izzo said. “We aren’t yet good enough to win a game like this on another team’s court, but in March we will be better. Whether we will be good enough, I don’t know.”
After watching Purdue control Saturday’s game from start to finish, I can’t yet say Michigan State will be good enough to make a run in March either. I suspect that if history is a guide, one would err if he flippantly dismissed the Spartans chances in January. But I do know this. Tom Izzo’s goals for this team haven’t changed one iota since the season began. And as one reporter chasing a quote found out on Saturday night, he isn’t afraid to let you know that either.