A trying season for Tom Izzo, MSU

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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.

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.

"What happens at the beginning of the year doesn't matter, but I had to remind these guys, 'Hey, don't listen to what everyone is saying. You are good and you deserve to be good,'" Izzo said. "I had to do that for me too. I had to realize that too."

It was something he had never done during a season unlike any other in his years of coaching. It might be the most he has grown as a coach, and if given the time -- the thing Michigan State has had the least of this season -- he will reflect on that fact and realize that the man coaching the Spartans on Friday is a very different man and coach than the one who began this season.

For a man who has made his career by not changing his goals, his coaching method or his sideline presence, that's a good thing.

"This season will be something I'll put in my back pocket and save," Izzo said. "And hopefully I'll never have to use it again, but at least I'll have a little better idea on how to deal with it. So yes, I think I grew as a coach, as a parent, as a person because of it.

"That's a deep thought, but yes, I grew."

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