They came for a trophy. They went home with a story. It’s a good story, sure, with choked-back tears and credit-where-credit-is-due hosannas. But a story is words and a trophy is solid. And at some point, the Spartans’ Tom Izzo needs to again lift something solid over his head to be regarded nationally the way we regard him here.
“I’ll put on my big boy pants and say ‘you’ve been here eight times, you’ve won one,’ ” Izzo told the media after Michigan State’s bruising 61-51 loss in the national semifinals to Texas Tech. “I’m gonna keep knocking on the door, and one of these days it’s gonna open.”
Honestly, the door’s not the problem. It’s going through the door and slamming it shut.
Izzo is rightly regarded with the top names in college hoops coaching, but trails them in one blinding category. Mike Krzyzewski has been to 12 Final Fours; he’s won five of them. Roy Williams has nine Final Fours, won three. John Wooden went to 12, won 10. Bobby Knight went to five, won three. Even Villanova’s Jay Wright, who has been to three, has won two.
Only Kentucky’s John Calipari, with six Final Fours and one win (two of those appearances, with Memphis and UMass, were later vacated) seems close to Izzo in the current great coaches “almost” category.
And it’s not a cloak that Izzo wants to wear. He spoke candidly about it before Minneapolis. He said he’d like a second championship to validate his long career, after the primary goal, bringing another title to East Lansing.
“I’m going to try and win it this time,” he said, half-joking. But with a veteran team, and three first-time Final Four coaches in the arena, it looked like a great chance.
And then, bang, it ended, the way it too often ends, with the Spartans not looking like themselves on the final weekend and scratching to crawl out of a hole. I had to watch the game from out of the country, yet it felt as if I was seeing something naggingly familiar.
‘One of those nights’
It happened against Duke in 2015, when MSU scored just 25 points in the first half and was hopelessly behind with 10 minutes to go.
It happened against Butler in 2010, when MSU hit just one basket in the last 10 minutes and lost 52-50.
It happened in 2009, in the national championship, when North Carolina blew out the Spartans in the first half.
And in 2005, when the Tar Heels, in the semifinals, blew out the Spartans in the second half.
Some of these MSU teams were admittedly underdogs, and not as highly regarded as this year’s version, But they somehow reached the final weekend, only to lose their mojo somewhere before the brass ring.
“Very seldom in my career have we kinda got out-beat up,” Izzo admitted to the media Saturday. “Tonight was one of those nights.”
Now, granted, Texas Tech is a bad draw. You can’t simulate them in practice. If you could, you’d play like them! They move like locusts. They swallow the middle. They don’t allow you to run or penetrate. They held Michigan to 44 points in eliminating the Wolverines from this tournament — and only allowed MSU seven more. Heck, they beat our entire state without allowing 100 points!
But Izzo and the Spartans had six days to prepare for the Red Raiders. And they were coming off an inspirational win over Duke. If they could stop Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, etc, it seemed they could impose their will on anyone.
But that’s exactly what DIDN’T happen. Instead, they got tangled in Texas Tech’s web. They were less themselves than the Red Raiders were themselves — even when Tech lost their star player, Tariq Owens, for a long stretch.
MSU made uncharacteristic turnovers. Didn’t shoot well. And for all the talk about Matt McQuaid and his leg cramp on a key 3-pointer, this is Cassius Winston’s team. And Winston faded in the final minutes. This is not a slight on a great player, and, yes, Texas Tech was keying on him.
But the NCAA title quilt is stitched by point guards coming up big in the clutch. Here is what Winston did in the final six minutes Saturday night: missed a jumper, missed a 3-pointer, committed a foul, committed another foul, turning the ball over, and missed two more jumpers.
Hard to win that way.
“They switched really well, made it hard to get into the post,” Winston told the media, after just two assists and four turnovers with 4-for-16 shooting. “…Their defense is really, really good.”
That’s an understatement.
Good season. Time to fix the ending.
But OK. If all that mattered was rings, this would be the NBA. So it’s worth noting that McQuaid, the senior, choked up when talking about how much he’d miss visiting with Izzo and just talking about life.
And last week, Winston told me how in his freshman year, after a tough stretch, “Coach Izzo picked us up for class in the morning. He had a big box of donuts and apple juice and he just dropped me off at class. He’s a Hall of Fame coach, and he’s still waking up at 8 in the morning and picking us up for class.”
Maybe Izzo will pick them up this morning. Maybe they’ll all pick each other up. Because that’s what real teams do, and brotherhoods, too, and this group is both.
They came for a trophy. They leave with a story. It’s a great story, about a season of endurance, and a Big Ten title, and a trip to the Big Dance.
It speaks well for the program. But Izzo will be the first to tell you, he wants to do something about that ending.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his latest best-selling book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” available online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.