The story on Michigan State is how it's managed to peel off a four-game win streak -- three of those being road victories -- to find shared ground atop the Big Ten standings with stumbling Maryland and just ahead of steadying Illinois and surging Wisconsin.
MSU getting there has involved two key/mostly unknown plot developments in the past month. The first is something I shed light on.
The second is a lot more personal, powerful ... and yet delicate.
It's about Spartans coach Tom Izzo and senior guard Cassius Winston learning how to challenge each other -- as much as they love each other -- again. That dynamic, that mentor-pupil tug of war hasn't been there most of this season. It hasn't been there for an obvious reason. The suicide in November of Winston's younger brother Zachary understandably, and unimaginably, radiated a pall over Michigan State's program. That won't go away; effects are felt daily.
Amazingly, Winston has been willing to speak about his brother openly and publicly way more frequently than what should be asked of him.
The most poignant example being this terrific-yet-simple video put together by Michigan State.
"I can't tell you how tough it's been," Izzo told CBS Sports. "It's been hard for me, I'm still on a day-to-day with Cash. Once in a while you gotta get on him, it's hard to get on him, I [try to] understand what he's going through. Some days he's just not with it. His mother, it's been hard on her. It's been like nothing I've ever gone through. If we can continue to win here, it will be the best accomplishment of my career, no matter where we go."
Izzo has long been a target of amusement, criticism, bewilderment and more because of the nature of his sideline behavior. On Tuesday night, Izzo was yet again caught multiple times getting red-faced with his players -- Winston included. But it hasn't been that way this season. Not until recently.
This was a step forward. This is craved confrontation; Izzo said as much afterward. Those on the outside might not think it, but Izzo provoking Winston is what Winston wants and what Izzo feels he and his star point guard needs.
"Maybe I think I'm playing hard, maybe he don't agree with that," Winston told the media on Tuesday night. "At the end of it I go out and play harder."
Here’s one sequence from Tues between Izzo/Winston. From outside it might seem like a fracture, but in fact it’s the breakthrough both had been hoping to have for weeks.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 4, 2020
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Izzo said of trying to strike the right balance in coaching Winston pic.twitter.com/UejGqw8a2H
Izzo is finally coming around to being the aggressor again. The style is polarizing, but Izzo has almost always known the line and how to work around it. Hall of Fame NFL coach Tony Dungy, who lost a son to suicide, told Izzo earlier this year that he needed to get back to normality -- his normality -- in the role of coach.
"I have to coach him different than my personality," Izzo said of Winston.
And for much of the past three months, when he's thought there was a moment he could get bellicose with Winston: "I can't do it."
It was after Michigan State's narrow win over Illinois on Feb. 11 that Izzo decided something had to change. Winston was just OK that game: 12 points, two assists, two rebounds, four turnovers, four fouls. It was the day-to-day where Izzo determined things weren't improving, though. He wasn't getting through to Winston because he wasn't coaching him -- or much of his team -- the way he normally did: with a fire under his ass and a take-no-prisoners approach to making his team better.
So he called a meeting with Winston and his parents. Izzo told them what they all knew: Winston was stagnating and the team was spinning in place because of it. Izzo felt entirely at fault. He was failing his player and thus failing his team. He didn't know what was right, what was best or how to handle this situation anymore. Most important was Winston's mental health in the foggy aftermath of dealing with his brother's suicide. Izzo knew he wasn't being fair to Winston because he wasn't pushing him, and hadn't been since the tragedy.
Winston and his parents agreed: they all needed the old Izzo back.
"His dad said, 'Well, push him,'" Izzo told me. "I'm telling you, it's the hardest thing I've ever done. But you've got parts of him [on Saturday night at Maryland] where he's so good, and parts where he made some plays that we're sitting on the bench going: I've known him since his sophomore year of high school ... he's never done this. But we're getting more normal days. He's getting more excited about things. We're trying to get it to the point where at least there's two and a half hours every day and basketball is a safe haven."
Winston is starting to put the practices together more consistently. A pressurized environment has been helped. But the young man's moods can rise and fall like a sine wave, only without the predicability. Last season, Winston was by far the most reliable player on the roster. It's what made him this season's preseason national player of the year. He won so many of Michigan State's close games down the stretch. This season, MSU's lost seven of its nine games in the final two minutes.
"Suicide is so much different than an accident," Izzo said. "An accident is one thing. Suicide, he's blaming himself, mom's blaming herself. It's been (Izzo sighs) every day. Every day try get him through practice, it's been three and a half months, it's gotten a little better. But they were so close. It's almost when he has a big game -- like, he got the assist record. That was a tough night for him. His brother's always there to watch those things. So with as much joy as it was, there was that. The other day was his birthday. They always had a family function on birthdays, the family's like this (Izzo squeezes hands). So I called him at 7:30 in the morning and I said, 'Are you all right?'"
Winston has seemingly been doing better. He's again embracing -- and confronting -- the man who recruited him, the one who made him want to stay local and play for the one coach in college basketball who defines tough love as piercingly as anyone else. And for Izzo, he's comfortably uncomfortable at this point. If winning comes with all this, as it has recently, it's just a side benefit.
"It's helped me become a different coach, maybe a better coach in some ways because I've had to do things that are unlike me," Izzo said. "But at the end of the day I'm trying to get back to who I am, what this program is and who he needs to be to be a great player and a pro prospect. That's what I've sold everybody on, that I know it's tough but I have to push you, it's my job, you need me to push you. I'm getting closer to him, it's good, and it's a process."
A home win this weekend against Ohio State is all that separates the Spartans from getting what three weeks ago seemed implausible: a Big Ten regular-season championship. Saturday is Senior Day. Izzo promises to be as loud as he is emotional. The Winstons wouldn't want it any other way.
NCAA can't repeat Georgia Tech punishment fiasco
This was a small story that I couldn't bypass commenting on, because an aspect of it remains morally wrong. Earlier this week Georgia Tech unsurprisingly laid down its sword in its fight with the NCAA and. The .
With the Yellow Jackets 15-14 and needing a miracle to earn an automatic bid to the 2020 NCAA Tournament -- and being far removed from consideration for the NIT -- dropping the appeal with the NCAA was the smart move.
But it's not something that should have been necessary to being with. It doesn't make what the NCAA did when it did it any less rotten. As a reminder, this adjudication/ban came down at the end of September, when none of Josh Pastner's players (who had anything to do with these rules violations; even Pastner himself was cleared, if not praised, by the NCAA in its final statement on the matter) were able to transfer out and have same-season eligibility.
Going forward, the NCAA has to institute a dark period on its punishment calendar. There has to be an end date for sanctions and bans due to oncoming seasons. September, after players are enrolled and the fall semester is well in session, is not that time. Broadly speaking: wrap your cases by Aug. 1, or if a ban is to be imposed, it waits until the following year.
Power-conference schools without conference titles
A little while back, this tweet from CBS Sports' managing editor, Adi Joseph, caught my eye.
Arizona State joined the Pac-10 in 1978 and has not won a men’s basketball conference title (regular season or tournament) in the 41 seasons since. The Sun Devils are first in the Pac-12 standings by half a game right now.— Adi Joseph (@AdiJoseph) February 25, 2020
ASU is no UCLA or Arizona of course, but that tweet is is astounding. Not a Pac-12/10/8 regular-season championship, not a conference tournament for ASU -- ever. Keep in mind that the Pac-12/10 Tournament has existed every season since 2002, but prior to that was only held from 1987-1990.
It also got me to thinking about what other programs from the current Major 7 leagues (AAC, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) have gone as long as Arizona State without both a conference tourney crown and a regular-season championship. I stretched it back 45 years, to 1975.
There are four. I accounted for all 87 current power-conference teams and applied their previous conference affiliations when applicable. The four are:
- Arizona State (made one title game, best finish in league is second, which it's done four times since 1975)
- Washington State (has never made the Pac-8/10/12 title game, best finish in league is second in '07 and '83)
- Baylor (0-3 in Big 12 title game; best finish in league is second)
- Northwestern (never made a Big Ten final, league tourney has been played since 1998; best finish in league since 1975 is fifth)
Arizona State and Baylor have reasonable chances this month to whittle this to two. Baylor is a game behind Kansas in the Big 12 standings with two games to go, but even if Scott Drew's team can't catch Bill Self's there, winning the Big 12 tourney is a relatively healthy prospect. As for ASU, it's a game behind in the loss column to UCLA and Oregon and gets to host the Washington schools this week to close out the regular season.
And since I know you're curious about the schools you might've though would have been on this but aren't, know that the lower-level AAC teams such as South Florida (won a Sun Belt title in '90), East Carolina (auto bid out of the CAA in '93), UCF (former ASUN champions earlier this century) and Tulane (won a regular-season title in the now-defunct Metro Conference in '92) all cleared the bar.
Penn State won the 1991 Atlantic 10 tourney, the same year Rutgers won that league's regular season. (Rutgers in fact had a couple league banners acquired in the '80s too.) Nebraska avoids the lists thanks to its 1994 Big Eight tournament title. The same goes for Clemson winning the ACC in 1990.
One school that came dangerously close: Virginia Tech, which last claimed a banner when it won the Metro Conference in 1979. Oregon State, surprisingly, has five regular-season championships in the past 40 years, but the Pac-12 is dotted with schools who barely qualify. Colorado only has one championship, the 2012 Pac-12 tourney. USC only has the '09 tourney and '85 regular season. Cal only has a 2010 Pac-10 regular season title.
Have a Q, curiosity or complaint? Then @ me early and often on Twitter.
What do you think is an appropriate over/under for the sum of the Final Four seeds given the nature of this year?— Ko-be, Ko-be, KOBE!!!!! (@MattHuo) March 3, 2020
I like this question. For reference, the sum of the Final Four seeds the past five years:
- 2019: 11
- 2018: 16
- 2017: 12
- 2016: 15
- 2015: 10
That's 12.8 on average the past five seasons, which is a surprisingly high number considering how often No. 1 and 2 seeds make the Final Four. While I always invite mid-majors breaking through to the Final Four, I am setting the over/under at 10.5 this season and will ever so slightly take the over, my blind guess being 11. We're gonna have multiple 1s or 2s in Atlanta.
Final Four is too much at this point, but I do like Providence as a Big East Tournament dark horse. PC's February run was UNREAL: bookended the month with ranked road wins over Butler and Villanova and also beat Creighton, Seton Hall and Marquette at home. Five wins vs. ranked teams, and per ESPN, only the fifth team in history to win five games vs. ranked teams in one month in regular-season D-I history. But PC needs three more wins to be a lock, IMO.
Stephen F. Austin would be 27-4 vs. D-I teams in that instance. If it was up to me, yes. Fun fact: the two lowest-ranked KenPom teams with four or fewer losses on Selection Sunday since 2002: Central Connecticut State in 2002 (148) and SFA in 2013 (72). The former was an automatic bid, the latter was not an at-large. This year's Stephen F. Austin team is doomed to be the second-worst KenPom team with four-or-fewer Ls on Selection Sunday as it's currently at 101. Maybe it can crack the top 90.
Where teams are placed in the NET, and why it doesn't make sense based off recent results, has become a point of contention as of late particularly with UCLA, Arizona, Duke, Maryland and Kentucky. It's important to remember that we are now almost 30 games deep on a team-by-team basis, so one additional data point isn't going to swing things too much. Ultimately, the reason why the bump up was so small was because UCLA got those wins at home and their overall efficiency margin didn't take a massive spike. Had UCLA won those two games on the road by an average of 14 points, the jump would likely have been closer to eight spots than just two.
- Vermont senior Josh Speidel, as you likely saw, became the biggest story in college basketball on Tuesday night. .
- Memphis has work to do to make the NCAA Tournament and things are getting worse: a report Tuesday from The Athletic stated that DJ Jeffries (knee) is not going to return this season. Tigers' 2019-20 is the biggest letdown of any team in the sport.
- Shoutout to Dayton and Gonzaga, the only schools with men's and women's teams that stand alone in first place in their leagues.
- One reason to consider Richmond as a first-round sleeper, should it make the NCAAs: The Spiders have four 1,000-point career scorers (Jacob Gilyard, Grant Golden, Nick Sherod and Blake Francis) on their roster and they're all only juniors. Richmond (23-7) won just 13 games last season and might double that total in 2019-20.
- Speaking of doubling your win total, shoutout to these teams for the biggest year-over-year turnaround in wins. As of Tuesday night, these six schools had at least a +10 win margin from 2019: Stephen F. Austin (14 to 26), Western Carolina (seven to 18), Little Rock (10 to 21), Richmond (13 to to 23), UNC Asheville (four to 14) and New Hampshire (five to 15).
- Might the Atlantic 10 be better than it's getting credit for? The A-10, Big Ten and WCC are the only two leagues with five or more teams with 20-plus wins. VCU and St. Bonaventure are two away from that threshold. The last time the A-10 had seven teams with at least 20 wins -- 2013 -- five went to the NCAAs.
- Iowa's Luka Garza, San Diego State's Malachi Flynn, Gonzaga's Filip Petrusev, Minnesota's Daniel Oturu and Kentucky's Immanuel Quickley. None of those five were listed. Among guys we did have listed, just too low, the three obvious ones are Jared Butler at 98, Collin Gillespie/Saddiq Bey in the 90s, Obi Toppin at 44 and Payton Pritchard at 37. , our five biggest misses were:
Remind me to have AJ Green in our top 50 come October, because he just won the MVC Player of the Year and became only the third player in league history (dating back to '69) to win the award as a sophomore. Only other players to do it are longtime NBA players: Doug McDermott at Creighton (2012) and Fred VanVleet at Wichita State (2014). The Valley's First Team All-League was released and for the first time in conference history (dating back to WWII) there are no seniors on it. If these guys don't transfer, the MVC could be a two-bid league in 2021.