The story always reads the same way.
When the calendar flips to March, Tom Izzo takes his intensity to another level as his team makes a run at the title. It’s a long-celebrated tradition surrounding the MSU men’s basketball team, almost as consistent as death and taxes — or NCAA Tournament appearances under Izzo.
With the Spartans (25-8) ramping up for the program’s 16th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament this week starting Thursday against Valparaiso (12:15 p.m., CBS), it’s become only customary to expect a similar ascent in the team’s play starting with the head coach.
However, sophomore guard Travis Trice said through a void in player leadership and playing a particularly daunting schedule, Izzo hasn’t broke stride from where he started, dating back to the team’s first exhibition game in October 2012.
“(We) got a lot of freshmen that are playing, and I think that adds in to (Izzo’s intensity),” Trice said. “With us not having that clear-cut leader like (former Spartan Draymond Green), it’s really added into it.”
The Spartans earned a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament and open up with the No. 14-seeded Crusaders at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich. Given MSU advances, it will play the winner of No.6 seed Memphis and the winner of the First Four game between Middle Tennessee and Saint Mary’s.
Many college basketball experts anticipate the Midwest Region being one of the most challenging in the NCAA Tournament by featuring the overall No. 1 seed Louisville, No. 2 seed Duke and dark horse teams, including No. 4 seed Saint Louis and Memphis.
Yet, after playing the third-toughest strength-of-schedule in the nation — including nine teams who earned NCAA Tournament bids — Izzo said the team knows what to expect from him this time of year and should be prepared based on what they’ve done.
“The advantage to playing tough teams, being at that high intensity level almost all the time, is that (it) becomes part of your fiber, part of who you are, part of who your team is,” Izzo said. “I think that is what helps you. It’s repetition. It’s the same.”
It’s a mentality starting with Izzo and adopted by many members of the team, including senior center Derrick Nix.
The Detroit native has played in the Big Dance in each of the three previous seasons, highlighted by an appearance in the 2010 Final Four against Butler — a game the team lost, 52-50.
With one final opportunity to take home the NCAA Tournament title, Nix said it requires the same drive for success the team has held the entire season.
“We wanted to (win) the regular season and the tournament but things happen,” Nix said. “We just gotta have that same fire in the NCAA’s now.”