A trying season for Tom Izzo, MSU

First it was sophomore Gary Harris. Then sophomore Matt Costello. Then senior Adreian Payne. Then senior Keith Appling. Then junior Branden Dawson. Then junior Travis Trice.

As the injuries piled up, the gap between the team he believed in got further and further from the reality of the team he was actually coaching. Every practice or game was a reality check that the team Izzo knew he had wasn't always on the floor. And when those players were on the floor, they might not be the players he knew they could be.

He can will his players to play harder and better. He can will his players into believing they must get stronger. He probably could will Payne to grow another inch or two if he needed to. But he could not will Appling's wrist to get better. He couldn't will mononucleosis out of a player.

"People said I looked more frustrated on the sideline," Izzo said. "How couldn't you be?"

He called coaches who had players suffer injuries to see how they dealt with it. No one had the understanding of the extent to which the Spartans had suffered, but they offered their advice.

How did they incorporate guys back into the offense? Did their defensive chemistry take longer to get back? How can he push along their fitness levels?

Calls 1, 5, and 20 ended with most coaches telling Izzo that he just had to keep believing in his team and they had to keep fighting.

"Sometimes you have to live through things," Izzo said. "You don't just learn by hearing about it."

And did Izzo ever live through it.

First came the injuries and the criticism for how they happened. Each seemed more incredulous than the last, but in East Lansing this season, when it rained, it poured.

When Dawson broke his hand by slamming it on a table during a film session, Izzo said "It's good to see some passion for basketball." Izzo, who isn't a silver-linings kind of man, had found a silver lining.

Then the criticism came for him talking about his players' injuries. People said he was complaining. He felt like he was just explaining what had happened. Yes, the Spartans were going through injuries. Yes, they were dropping in the national polls. Yes, his team looked terrible at times.

With the season far from over and some of Michigan State's starters not even in uniform yet, people had the Spartans six feet in the ground.

It's rare that anyone quits so early on Izzo. He has been named the national coach of the year eight times. He knows what he's doing. And generally, most people trust in that alone.

"Trust me, if I didn't think they were good, they'd know. One thing about my teams, if I don't think they're good sometimes, I tell them and they know it," Izzo said. "If I tell you that I know we're a good team, then we really are. Are we good enough to go past this weekend? I don't know. There are a lot of good teams left. But I do think we have a good team."

He told his team that fact this entire season. He stuck with his players and knew their potential remained the same whether they were No. 1 in the country or No. 22. The only question was whether they would be able to play together long enough to hit that potential. The 1999-2000 and 2000-01 teams did it.

So, unlike any of his other 18 seasons at MSU, he kept going back to early-season film, when he coached the team he knew he had.

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