After testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 9, MSU men's basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo has yet to return to practice. However, while in isolation he has been staying in contact with his athletes, including both current and graduated ones.
As of Nov. 10, no update on Izzo's health was available, but his players say he's virtually critiquing their practices almost just as he would in person.
Junior forward Gabe Brown said that Izzo has cameras set up that stream practice live to his home so he can watch the team's progress each day. Brown said that the assistant coaches and Associate Head Coach Dwayne Stephens, who have stepped in for Izzo during his time away, have continued to push the team just as hard in the gym.
However, as Brown put it, it is different without hearing Izzo's voice in the background of their mistakes, a yell that Brown, for better or worse, has never missed out on during his three years on the roster.
"You can really tell the difference with him not yelling," Brown said. "You can really tell but then again, coach probably needed a little break. He's been going so hard," Brown said. "... I don't think I've ever in my three years of basketball, I don't think I've ever seen (Izzo) not be at practice."
Junior forward Thomas Kithier said that practice inevitably has been different, but he still believes the team has made strides of progress in preparation for their first game Nov. 25.
"I think one thing I give credit to is the assistant coaches for stepping up," Kithier said. "I think at first we came out a little flat, but we've slowly picked it up and we had a good scrimmage the other day. ... We are going to try and get used to stuff like this. It's kind of almost preparing us in a way because anybody can go down at any point in the season."
After watching the practice film at home, Brown said that Izzo will call the team before they depart, critiquing their day in the gym and pointing out all of the mistakes, plus a few extra he saw on the film from that day's work.
"After practice every time we get into a huddle he calls, and he just sees the things that he sees on the film, and he says it's a lot different than being in practice than when you're not in practice and that's true," Brown said. "He calls us and tells us the things that we need to work on. He points out people that are messing up or doing things wrong. He's been great on it."
It's not ideal, especially for a coach that feeds so highly into the team's intensity level, but the calls are a way that the athletes, assistant coaches and Izzo all ensure that they are on the same page.
"I know he's not liking being at home because he's a gym rat — he loves to be in the gym — so for him to do that and really point out the things that we are doing it means that he's on the same page as everybody else," Brown said.
Izzo, now in year 25 of being the head coach at Michigan State, has proven to be more than a coach to his athletes. He's a mentor and a friend to those who pass through his program, and he maintains those relationships after his athletes graduate.
On Wednesday, Spartan alumni Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston were drafted in the second round of the 2020 NBA draft. With Tillman picked at No. 35 and Winston gone at No. 53, both Spartan superstars dropped lower in the draft than they might have hoped for.
As the picks trickled away and anxiety began to heighten, Tillman said Izzo reached out to him with words of encouragement that gave him a second wave of confidence just when he needed it.
"He (Izzo) texted me maybe five minutes before I got picked like 'You hang in there. I promise you everything's going to work out, but now let you getting passed up in the first round be a fire so you're always motivated to go out and get better,'" Tillman, who will join the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA, said. "He said it's in our DNA, talking about me and him, to get passed up on but to show people that we will put in the work."
Winston, who was picked by the Oklahoma City Thunder and then traded to the Washington Wizards said Izzo was one of the first people that prompted Winston to put the Wizards on his NBA radar. Izzo contacted Winston with a similar statement of encouragement on draft night.
"He (Izzo) was probably one of the first to talk to the Wizards coaches," Winston said. "He told me how excited they sounded that they could get me, that I could come to their organization (and) how proud he was of me. I've been in this situation before. I've been doubted before. I've been told things that I can't do and what things will hold me back, and I know what that situation feels like and look what I've made of it before. So, he said that he had full faith that I could go out there and do it again, keep having faith in my work, trusting myself and go out there and make it happen."
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