Tom Izzo, A Coaching Lion, Has Been Leaving March Like a Lamb


Basketball is a simple game with a primary objective. Put the ball through the hoop. Failure to do that makes winning more difficult. In that sense, it’s not difficult to understand how Michigan State dropped a virtual home game to Syracuse on Sunday.

The Spartans made only 17 of 66 field goal attempts, including 8 of 37 from beyond the arc — good for 25 and 21 percent respectively. This is not any team’s recipe for success. This is how a season ends, no matter how far shy of the lofty goals being chased and no matter the skill level of those chasing.

Tom Izzo’s best — and perhaps only realistic — shot at a second national championship died without much ceremony. The most obvious cause of death was a historically anemic shooting display. But the full picture is more complicated than that. A turbulent and bizarre season presented a wide array of symptoms which went ignored before rearing their heads at the most critical time.

The unit lacked an identity and on-court chemistry. It played down to competition and couldn’t deliver a knockout blow. Izzo never solidified a go-to rotation in crunch time. Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., two lottery pick talents, tended to be shrinking violets. In many ways this was the antithesis of Spartans basketball — a jump shooting team where the potential outpaced the performance.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a disjointed and circus-like year in East Lansing came to an end in clownish and confusing fashion. Perhaps there’s something poetic about the facade completely rotting to reveal a bad core.

It took a total team effort to bomb so poorly. The players didn’t execute and Izzo had no answers. He’ll be most criticized for bowing out with Jackson largely on the bench. That the all-everything center played 15 minutes while little-used Ben Carter played 23 will forever be an oddity. In Izzo’s defense, Jackson looked lost while he was on the court, going 0-for-4 and providing nothing in the middle of Syracuse’s zone.

It was far from Izzo’s brightest day on the sidelines. That said, if his team had been able to make 30 percent of its shots, it would have survived and advanced. There is plenty of blame to go around and rationalizing what happened is fairly straightforward for fans, if entirely unsatisfying.

The problem for Izzo, though, is that he’s built his Hall of Fame career on maximizing success with lesser talent. He’s gone further than expected and done so with a blue-collar team the brings the fight to the opponent. That makes MSU’s performance in the last three NCAA Tournaments even more disappointing.

In 2016, the No. 2-seeded Spartans were upset by Middle Tennessee State. Last year, top-seeded Kansas was simply too much in a Round of 32 game. This year, MSU couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn and kept much of its weaponry off the battlefield.

Matt McQuaidand Kenny Goins are in danger of becoming only the third and fourth Spartans to play under Izzo for four years and fail to make a Final Four (Adriean Payne and Keith Appling). And a Final Four feels like a long shot next year, especially when the Sweet 16 hasn’t been reached in three years. Throw in the departure of Bridges and Jackson, dash in the tense relationship between Izzo and Nick Ward and you’ve got a spicy stew of uncertainty brewing.

Izzo, who made his legend on proving the doubters wrong, must do so once again. One would say it’s a position he’s comfortable in, but nothing surrounding his job, the program, or the university has been comfortable in months.

This is a unique challenge, and one he’s not running away from. He’s announced his intentions to return. Will he ever return to being a lion of March or is he destined to go out like a lamb?