Tom Izzo embarks on his eighth trip to the Final Four with Michigan State, and he’s looking to make just one major change before the Spartans hit Minneapolis to take on Texas Tech in the NCAA Tournament national semifinal matchup Saturday.
“I’ll disclose this one thing: I’m going to try to win this time,” Izzo said. “I don’t know if I’ve done a good job of that.”
The Spartans (32-6) got here by winning the East Region with a one-point victory over Duke, the top seed in the tournament and the epicenter of attention thanks to freshman phenom Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, another likely lottery pick.
Michigan State was the fifth overall seed in the tournament but wound up in the same bracket as Duke based on geographical considerations, the selection committee said. In a tournament that appeared to be destined for a reunion of basketball bluebloods — Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and the like — the closest thing to college hoops royalty left standing is Izzo and his Spartans.
“That feels good, I guess, if maybe we could be considered in that a little bit. Like everywhere else, Villanova wasn’t considered one. Florida wasn’t considered one. Both of them won one back to back, one won two out of three. We won one, and we’re back in Minnesota that next year with a pretty good team and didn’t win one,” Izzo said.
“I don’t think it — yeah, you get used to the Dukes and Kentuckys and Carolinas, and Kansases, but this day and age, it’s about who’s playing the best and who matches up the best. Matchups are very important this time of year. Some teams just don’t match up well and others do.”
The ascent of the Red Raiders
Chris Beard of Texas Tech (30-6) is a relative unknown among the four remaining coaches. Tony Bennett, son of basketball coaching legend Dick Bennett, has held the prime ACC job long enough to establish his own name value. And Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, coaching in his 10th NCAA Tournament, also spent time on national television as a college basketball analyst.
Hired in 2016 to replace Tubby Smith, Beard, 46, is a former Red Raiders assistant. A manager under Tom Penders at Texas, he was head coach at Angelo State just four years ago.
Beard has 105 wins as a Division I head coach. Izzo has 606 victories, including 50 in the NCAA Tournament (one national title, two runner-up finishes).
Izzo and the Spartans are not unknown to Beard, who instilled Izzo-isms and Michigan State tendencies in the Red Raiders’ program by design.
“Coach Izzo is always one of my, you know, idols,” Beard said. “He’s somebody I look up to. He’s been great to coaches. When I was a junior college coach, small college coach, and a young assistant, I watched his teams practice any open practices at Final Fours for years. In our program, we have terminology, Michigan State toughness, Tom Izzo rebounding. These are things we tell our teams. It’s almost surreal that we’ll be having a chance to coach and play against him.”
Beard, a Bob Knight protégé, is a grinder in the mold of Izzo. He’s attended every Final Four since he became a head coach, albeit anonymously. But Texas Tech makes its first appearance in the Final Four this weekend with two things on its side – a lock-down defense and plenty of experience.
“I think there’s a poise to our team,” Beard said. “Every team we’ve played to this point gave us a real punch in the face, but we got ourselves back up, whether it be Game 1 [Northern Kentucky], Buffalo, certainly Michigan was so talented, and then Gonzaga, one of the best teams in the country. I would think we have to look like an experienced team out there at times.”
Spartans thrown into the fire
Michigan State has only one player — Kenny Goins — with Final Four experience. He splashed the game-winning 3-pointer to send Duke home, and is helping provide the other Spartans with expectations of what’s ahead in Minnesota. Goins, a walk-on who chose to sign with Izzo on the promise of a potential scholarship, was a redshirt freshman and didn’t play in the 2015 Final Four, but was along for the ride.
“I think it goes to the testament to our entire team, our maturity and our experience because we’ve been through battles like this before and we’ve lost a couple like this too,” Goins said of his 3 with 34 seconds left in the regional final.
Beard and Izzo spent time on the phone Monday. Beard said he reached out to make sure the next time he sees Izzo — likely Thursday at US Bank Stadium — wasn’t an informal hello or sped-up handshake.
The Spartans won despite big efforts from Williamson and Barrett in the regional final. Saturday the focus is on Jarrett Culver, who has games of 29, 22, 19 and 16 in this tournament.
Texas Tech isn’t short on experience. The Red Raiders lost in the Elite Eight to national champion Villanova last season, but had some reloading to do.
Despite entering the tournament having never played in the Big Dance, transfers Matt Mooney (South Dakota) and Tariq Owens (St. John’s) are contributing at what Beard said was an “All-Big 12” level.
“I remember having candid conversations with Matt and Tariq about getting to the NCAA Tournament in their senior years,” Beard said. “I felt the responsibility and so did the other players. I vividly remember during our team retreat earlier this year Jarrett Culver standing up and saying, ’I will do everything in my power to get Matt and Tariq in the [NCAA] Tournament.’”
Mooney had 17 points and five assists in the regional final victory over Gonzaga that made Texas Tech West Region champions.
Saturday night he draws another tough assignment, Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston. The Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American had 20 points, 10 assists and four steals against Duke.
While Texas Tech plots ways to slow him down, Izzo is never worried what his junior captain will deliver.
“Cassius is always Cassius,” he said.
–Jeff Reynolds (@ReynoldsJD), Field Level Media