Michigan State hasn't had many down years under Tom Izzo. Even his worst campaigns are, by anyone else's standards, very good -- and even then they are rare.
The 2010-11 season was that anomaly. It wasn't just that Michigan State went 19-15, and barely limped into the NCAA tournament as a double-digit seed (speaking of anomalous). It's that the Spartans, for perhaps the first time in Izzo's career, never actually seemed to care. After back-to-back Final Four trips in 2009 and 2010 with many of the same personnel -- led by talented guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers -- apathy was the only explanation. You could just see it.
That season was also among the most turbulent of Izzo's career. In the summer preceding it, Izzo dismissed sharpshooter Chris Allen from the team. That same summer, Korie Lucious was arrested while driving over the legal limit. A few months later, in the middle of the season, Izzo dismissed him for violating of team rules.
Reasons for the suspensions were never given, but rumors abounded, and in this case they lined up with what we all fairly or unfairly assume "violation of team rules" really means: failed drug test(s).
This summer, after finishing their careers at Iowa State (Allen in 2012, Lucious in March) both players confirmed those reasons.
Allen did so in a Facebook post: “… to athletes who smoke WEED its not worth it, Yeah it makes you happy and forget all the BS you thought your coach was on with you but at the same time it's a easy way to get you out of a respectable program and of course it's deeper than just weed but that's for me and the people that was at Michigan state those years to know.”
Lucious did so in an interview with Black Athlete: "I was smoking. I don’t want to tell a lot of people that but I was smoking a lot of weed at Michigan State. That’s the real reason I got kicked off the team and I let my mom, family and friends down."
So … that was settled. Lucious also attributed his issues at Michigan State to stylistic differences, saying Izzo "didn't respect his game," that "even if I dribbled in between my legs and he would just yell at me and say “this isn’t And-1 streeetball.'"
OK then. The only question: What does Tom Izzo think of all this? Coaches' lips are usually held firm by privacy laws, but following both players' public admissions, on "Mad Dog in the Morning," Izzo addressed the whole deal.
“There’s certain things that, coaches put up with a lot. Just like parents do,” Izzo said. “I mean, nobody throws their kid under the bus if he makes a mistake. But if the kid repeats the same mistake over and over, then it’s not a mistake, it’s a habit. When it becomes a habit, those things are hard to handle. And I think in Korie’s case, I’ll never understand … I guess I almost appreciate him saying we have a good program, I’m a decent coach, it’s just I don’t want to put up with the ‘And1’ stuff. I mean, I’ve put up with a lot of stuff from a lot of players. And his scoring didn’t change that much at Iowa State. You can change addresses, but you better change your character before you can really change. And I think that’s the lesson I try to teach all guys.”
In other words, there is casual marijuana use -- which is probably a bad idea for any athlete, as Allen wrote, for reasons both physical and legal -- and then there is direct, repeated defiance of the things your coach has asked you to do, with "hey, please don't indulge in illegal substances" somewhere near the top of the list. That's the real issue. It's not the details. It's the concept. Disillusion and apathy afflict more college basketball teams than any drug, I'd wager, and if you were wondering how a Tom Izzo-coached team that went to back-to-back Final Fours and returned its two best players finished 19-15 just one year later, well, now you know.