Tom Izzo is an old-school coach whose fire and fury on the sidelines helped propel him to Hall of Fame status. He's not shy to emote -- whether it's getting in a player's face or brandishing that trademark scowl of his without saying a word. He's a no-nonsense results-getter whose coaching has created an inimitable culture of winning.
Yet as the pandemic's path has thrown twists and turns into amateur sports and American life at large, Izzo and Michigan State have hardly been spared from its effects the likes of positive tests, players and coaches missing time as well as game postponements. Now, with his Spartans teetering well off the NCAA Tournament trajectory, he is facing the challenge of a balancing act he's wholly unfamiliar with.
"We've got to get back the culture," said Izzo on Tuesday after falling 84-78 to No. 8 Iowa, adding that he's been "so soft" on his team.
"We've got to get back to playing. Maybe I've done a poor job. It's hard to push guys when you know they're worried about getting [COVID-19], they're worried about every test. That's draining on a player. It's not that I'm afraid of -- I'm past the point of getting sued, it doesn't bother me anymore. I'm just telling ya that you do have some compassion and empathy for people because it's a tough time for them. But I don't think I'm very good that way, and I don't think they respond."
Izzo's dilemma on how to deal with the pandemic as a coach and how to handle his team appropriately in exceedingly challenging times is one of many problems plaguing MSU. On Tuesday, the team was without two coaches. Just last month, it went 20 days in between games. And of late, it has been without all-around glue guy Gabe Brown, who recently tested positive and has missed the last three games. If it's not one thing, it sure as heck has been another. The team has been a case study in how COVID interruptions can affect a team both on the court and off it.
"It's been difficult," said Izzo on Sunday after falling 79-62 to Ohio State. "It's difficult to figure out how hard to practice, how much to practice, and let's face it, for 17 of those  days, we just practiced 2-on-2, 3-on-3 and individual work. Hard to get anything going when you're doing that."
As the Spartans try and find their footing on unequal, constantly-shifting ground, the pressure to mount a turnaround steadily intensifies. Under Izzo, they've made 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, the third-longest streak among all teams in the game. But they're nowhere to be found in Jerry Palm's most recent Bracketology. They rank 92nd in the NET, 62nd at KenPom and 74th at Bart Torvik. And Torvik's percentage change that Sparty somehow sneaks into the field: 0.9%.
Michigan State played top-10 Iowa on Wednesday down to the end. Heck, it even led for nearly 18 minutes of the 40-minute fight. Maybe it was a turning point, maybe not; Izzo refuses to accept a moral victory. But he also won't accept defeat, and he's confident despite the shaky record and the suspect résumé that this team is bordering on a breakthrough.
"I had a good friend of mine tell me, 'Why are you coaching them with kid gloves?'" said Izzo. "And I said 'Because I don't know what they can take.' And so the kid gloves came off a little bit."
Just how far those gloves are off and just how quickly Izzo can adapt to an ever-changing college basketball landscape is unclear. No one thinks a four-game losing streak, an 8-7 overall record and a 2-7 mark in league play accurately depicts the totality of this team's talent. But talent and potential aren't part of the criteria to NCAA Tournament inclusion for the selection committee. Sparty needs a full about-face, and quick.
Said Izzo, "We've got to win games, get better, and somebody better hope we don't get on a little streak."