When time expired and Michigan State secured its win over Duke on Sunday in the NCAA Tournament East Region finals, Tom Izzo raised his fists as high as he possibly could and let out an emphatic cheer, a mental image I’m not sure I’ll ever forget.
It was type of cheer given when one finally exorcises the demons of three straight first-weekend exits in the Big Dance, despite the expectations of competing for a national championship. It was like a curse had been lifted, a spirit freed.
He never expected to be in this position. Not after Joshua Langford’s season-ending foot injury. And certainly not after Kyle Ahrens, Langford’s backup, suffered a gruesome ankle sprain in the Big Ten Tournament championship.
But here he is heading to his eighth Final Four. He’s two wins away from his second National Championship.
Izzo, 64, the 2016 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee, knows he needs a second title to cement his legacy as an all-time great. Especially given the early tournament exits over the past couple seasons, a long-awaited second championship will validate Izzo’s 24-year tenure at MSU.
“I have my own goals,” Izzo said Tuesday. “I have my own aspirations of what I want to do. What I want to do is put Michigan State University in rare air — two national championships by the same school starts to separate you from the 40-some that have won one.
“Three national championships with the same school validates it. The more I keep talking about it, puts you in a smaller fraternity.”
As much as Izzo wants it, as much as he thinks he needs it the group of players that brought him there want it more.
“He already got one,” forward Xavier Tillman said. “He did it. He did what everyone’s been trying to do. So this one’s for us. We want this for our legacy. And this is something to be proud of — like, really, truthfully, have a banner. Going to the Final Four is obviously amazing, but to win it is different. I want that feeling.”
Out of context, Tillman’s comment might come off as selfish, like this group isn’t playing for Izzo. But in order to bring MSU its first national championship since 2000, the desire to win can’t be an external motivator.
After all, how can you deliver a promise to someone else when you yourself don’t know where to begin looking? Especially if what you’re seeking is the same thing.
Make no mistake about it. Tillman and everyone else in this current group want to bring Izzo a second title. The psyche of this team— which starts with a calm, collected Cassius Winston — took its roots when current-NBA rookie Miles Bridges announced he was returning for his sophomore year last season.
Each time Winston & Co. have been met with adversity, the end result has been a mentally tougher, grittier team that won’t ever go away.
“We all have that goal right now,” forward Kenny Goins said. “It’s one whole program driving in one direction. ... I know he’ll be working his butt off doing everything he can to get us ready for the game. So I think that just really shows you how driven this entire program is top-down from Coach Izzo down to managers, secretaries, whoever you want to call them, we’re all pushing for that end result.”
Buried under, the drive to win a national championship is the selflessness that made MSU such a likable team.
Teams like this, a culmination of elite skill, upperclassman leadership and an instinct to make the right plays at the right time, are rare. A team that can deliver Izzo’s best chance breathing that rare air.
“We all want to win a championship,” assistant Dane Fife said. “We know how bad coach wants it for the rest of us. And that is the drive. You feel lit every day. There has to be a selfish component there or it’s not going to push you every day.
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