A trying season for Tom Izzo, MSU


Tom Izzo isn't the most outwardly sentimental guy.

If he's being blunt, which he is most of the time, his opinion is that you should save the "12 Sweet 16s in 18 seasons" plaudits for when he's old and out of coaching. When he's rocking grandchildren, when that fan recognizes him in the grocery store, when a young coach needs a mentor -- that's the time when he'll really meditate on how his career changed him as a person.

Right now, he just wants to coach.

But that's where it gets tricky. The coach whose team will take the floor Friday night against No. 1 seed Virginia isn't the same coach whose team took the floor against then-No. 1 Kentucky in November. To coach this team, and realize that fact, Izzo had to reflect on himself as a person and coach and contemplate where this season fits into his career and growth as a coach.

Generally, Izzo wouldn't pause for midseason reflection on how a season full of change and struggle has changed him. But this one was just so wildly different.

"I definitely think I'll be a better coach, better parent, better person because of this season," Izzo said. "They say adversity makes you stronger."

It's hard to say where Izzo's career will fit in with the John Woodens, Adolph Rupps and Bob Knights of the world. It's hard to say how one season can change a coach. And man.

Those coaches faced adversity. Maybe not the same as Izzo did this season, but their own brand. They changed, they adapted, they grew.

For a coach who has never had to deal with such tumult, how much has this season changed Izzo?

"That's a deep thought," Izzo said, with a laugh.

The answer: It has changed him a lot. He might be more changed by this season than any that came before it, and possibly any that comes after it.

In November, when he was looking at his team, he saw something he had seen only twice during his career -- a real shot at a national title. He had seen that same potential in his 1999-2000 and 2000-01 teams. In 2000, the Spartans won it all. In 2001, they made it to the Final Four. Michigan State entered those seasons as the No. 2- and No. 3-ranked team, respectively.

This season, the preseason polls exhibited the same belief in this Michigan State team as Izzo. The Spartans were No. 2, one spot behind Kentucky. With others seeing what he saw, he thought that if this group could stay healthy it would be in a good spot.

There. That's the spot where the change in Izzo this season might have started, in that single thought, a belief that his team wouldn't just be good but one of the best he has ever coached.

"I had the whole package this year. ... You yearn for those kind of years," Izzo said. "I thought we had a real shot to get there when the year started. And you don't have many of those."

If only we can stay healthy ...

Every coach says that. It wasn't some brilliant, original thought. But how ominous it seems now. Only twice before had he thought so highly of a team entering a season. But never before had he experienced players getting injured at such a high clip as the Spartans did during the 2013-14 season.

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