Saturday, December 4, 2021

Program seeks stability

March 11, 2002

A lot of basketball teams can look good in stretches, hitting a few shots in a row or stopping their opponents for a couple of minutes. The great teams do those type of things for 40 minutes.

And just like a stretch doesn’t make a game, one great year doesn’t lead to the label of a great program.

But with the Spartan men’s basketball team (19-11 overall) making their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this month, discussion is being raised on whether they belong to be mentioned with the top programs in college basketball.

In MSU head coach Tom Izzo’s seven-year tenure as head coach, the Spartans have gone to the postseason each year, going to the National Invitational Tournament in his first two years before heading to the NCAA’s the past five years.

“I want to be known as the team that plays in March,” Izzo said.

And college basketball enthusiasts nationally are taking notice.

“Michigan State has closed the gap on a lot of programs,” ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. “They’ve done a phenomenal job.”

But Izzo still envisions his program as being a few steps away from closing the gap on programs like Duke and other consistent contenders.

“I’ve always had great respect for (a school) like Temple,” Izzo said. “Everybody says no matter how they do, they’re incredible in March.

“I think that’s kind of a neat thing. I hope to get that.”

But he said it takes more than a couple of years to earn that type of fear and respect in the postseason.

“Three years isn’t having it, (Temple head coach John Chaney) did it over a zillion years,” Izzo said.

But with another great recruiting class on the way for next season, Vitale said the Spartans are close to being able to not compare themselves to other programs.

“They’ve got a great recruiting class coming in next year,” he said. “They just have to worry about being the best they can be and not worry about anyone else.”

Former Spartan head coach Jud Heathcote said MSU’s ability to get back into the postseason after a turbulent year helps cement its place among the elite.

“I think they’re in (the class of elite programs),” he said. “Naturally, when you lose (Zach) Randolph and (Jason) Richardson (to the NBA), the bottom could have dropped out.

“And Tom didn’t let the bottom drop out.”

The reason why it didn’t was that the Spartan head coach refused to not contend.

“That’s what he feels, that they built the program to a level where they’re not going to tolerate being mediocre,” Heathcote said.

With all the injuries and inexperience the Spartans had to work through for much of the season, their progress can definitely be called a success, Heathcote said.

“I think that when you talk about the elite programs, you have to talk about Michigan State - they’ve been to the Final Four three straight years, and they’ve won a National Championship,” Heathcote said. “And then when they’re supposed to have a really down year, they’re still in fifth place in the conference and they are still going to the NCAA Tournament.

“I think that’s more proof that this is an elite program.”

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