Only a rube would doubt Michigan State's place among college basketball's elite programs. Recently, it ranks among the top 5. Maybe better.
The Spartans may not have the name recognition to casual fans as Duke or North Carolina, but anyone who's filled out a bracket in the last 10 years knows you ignore Tom Izzo's team at your own risk.
Since 1999, Michigan State's been to five Final Fours, more than any other school. Among active coaches, only Mike Krzyzewski (.763) and Billy Donovan (.759) have higher NCAA tournament winning percentage than Izzo (.750).
Throw in the 2000 NCAA title and five regular-season Big Ten titles, and Sparty has the résumé to match any team around.
Yet every year, Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten are ripped for their slow-it-down, bruising, aesthetic-less style of play. But why is that? Doesn't its record speak for itself?
Consider the league's NCAA tourney record since 2000.
League FF apps. Overall record Win %
ACC 9 85-46 .649
Big Ten 8 82-52 .612
Big 12 6 85-53 .616
Big East 5 96-54 .640
SEC 4 68-53 .562
Pac-10 4 70-60 .538
This video captures Izzo at his best, defending his league and pointing that Michigan State isn't that different from its Final Four opponent, Connecticut, both in terms of style and scoring.
|Michigan State's Tom Izzo defends Big Ten's style of play|
The Huskies are a lot like the Spartans. They focus on rebounding and defense. They're balanced offensively, but don't have any scoring superstars.
"We're tough and physical, we do the same things they do," senior Travis Walton said Thursday. "I think it's going to be a football game without pads."
That may be. The quote (hat trip: Spartans Weblog) sums up Michigan State's approach to the game – be physical, be tough, don't get beat on defense – and doesn't help its cause when it comes to any naysayers. But don't let it fool you.
The Spartans feature an athletic, talented roster that can run with just about any team in the country.
In a slow league like the Big Ten, they just don't get a chance to run that often. They average about 67 possessions a game, which is right on the D-I average, according to kenpom.com. (UConn's at 68.1. Villanova, 69.2, UNC, 73.8.) They do play faster than any other Big Ten team. And they win.
Yet … it seems respect for Michigan State lags behind the traditional powers.
Duke and Carolina are routinely on ESPN. UCLA has 11 NCAA championship banners hanging from the roof at Pauley. Kansas has Naismith and Phog Allen in its corner.
Most of the Big Ten hoops awe is reserved for Indiana. Yet the Hoosiers have just two NCAA tournament wins since their Final Four berth in 2002. More telling? They're now coached by a former Izzo assistant, Tom Crean.
Kentucky turned to John Calipari to restore its luster, but Izzo made news when he didn't explicitly dismiss the idea of coaching in Lexington. He likely had ulterior motives; it's doubtful he'll ever leave East Lansing.
Izzo just keeps winning, and winning in March. And the more he does that, the more we all might have to change our long-held notions about the truly elite programs.