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How Tom Izzo succeeds in March

A guy walks into the Michigan State basketball office with his dog …

The punch line? He got to see the head coach.

This was back in 2011, during the season, when busy assistants congregated outside of Tom Izzo's office waiting to meet with the boss.

Five minutes turned into 10, 10 into 15 and finally Dane Fife asked Izzo's secretary, Lori, who was in with Izzo.

"She said, 'Well you know, this guy came in and he really wanted Coach to meet his dog because he named it Izzo,'" Fife remembered. "Now I'm a nice guy, so I might say, 'OK, Bob, nice to meet you,' and maybe, 'Hey, Izzo give me a paw shake.' He's in there for 45 minutes with the guy."

Fife couldn't remember what kind of dog it was.

We're going to go with a bulldog.

Loyal, tenacious and slightly stubborn, Izzo treats a basketball like a bulldog munches a bone, clamping down and never letting go, shaking it until he draws out every last bit of marrow.

There's a Michigan State T-shirt for sale these days. It reads, "January, February, Izzo, April."

That's about right.

Of the four coaches descending on Indianapolis for the Final Four this weekend, Izzo is the only one not in or nominated for the Hall of Fame, but that is merely because he hasn't been coaching quite long enough. Hall rules require active coaches have 25 years of head-coaching experience. Izzo is in Year 20. He's a guaranteed future member, his reputation fortified by seven national semifinals and one national title but really built on owning the month that matters most.

Now 46-16 in the NCAA tournament, the Spartans under Izzo specialize in unexpected success. According to FiveThirtyEight, since 1985, Michigan State has won 14.6 more tourney games than its seed would otherwise indicate.

Izzo might never have done a more miraculous job than he has this season. He has admitted that this is his least talented Final Four team, and the unlikeliest. It was a group that looked ordinary from November until February, then suddenly became extraordinary in March. The Spartans pushed Wisconsin to overtime in the Big Ten tournament, and they have since slain a 2-seed (Virginia), a 3-seed (Oklahoma) and a 4-seed (Louisville) in the NCAA tournament, all as a 7-seed.

"At midseason, this was the first year I thought Tom's team wouldn't make the tournament, and now they're in the Final Four. Maybe the game has passed me by," said former Michigan State coach and Izzo mentor Jud Heathcote with a chuckle. "He's been an outstanding coach for 20 years, but this might be his best coaching job ever."

The three-letter question on everyone's lips right now, as the surprising Spartans ready for Indy, is how?

"That's what everyone asks, 'What's the secret?'" Fife said. "I had the same question. That's why I came here. That's why I bugged him for nearly 10 years to hire me. I wanted to understand it, too."


On Nov. 18, the Spartans faced Duke in the State Farm Champions Classic.

On April 4, the Spartans will face Duke in the national semifinals.

The bookended games show exactly what happens in the course of an Izzo-led season.

In the 36 games between Blue Devils matchups, Izzo has used eight starting lineups, including one stretch in which he rolled out different guys for the opening tip in five consecutive games.

Ten players have started at least one game for the Spartans, but only one -- Denzel Valentine -- has started every single game.

"There's a definite method to the madness," said Kevin Pauga, Izzo's former video coordinator and current director of operations.

The methodical madness that leads to the mastery of March Madness sounds like a contradiction. It features a feisty-but-gushy coach who commands yet cajoles his players while tinkering his way through a season that is calculated in its fluidity.

"The sense of urgency is with me all year long, but I get to make some mistakes," Izzo said.

On its face, that doesn't sound like much, but it's a pretty bold statement. Coaches don't like to make mistakes, and they sure aren't excited to admit it when they do.

But to Izzo, the months of November through February are for tinkering, even risk taking.

By now, most college basketball fans know of Izzo's affinity for scheduling a nonconference season that would make most coaches' knees buckle. This season's slate was tame by his standards -- just Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame -- but this is the man who once memorably opened a season on an aircraft carrier in San Diego against North Carolina (then ranked No. 1 in the nation) and four days later faced Duke (then ranked sixth) on dry land in New York City. No surprise, the Spartans lost both.

It is bona fide insanity, but insanity with a purpose. Izzo is perfectly happy to take a few hits early, potentially sacrificing a few spots on the selection committee's seed line, if it makes his team tougher in the long run.

It also helps him better understand his lineup, build it slowly and ultimately appropriately.

This season, Lourawls 'TumTum' Nairns Jr. didn't get a permanent spot in the starting lineup until Feb. 10, when the Spartans played Northwestern.

Since then, they are 12-3 and Travis Trice, moved to the off guard, has gone from averaging 14.1 points per game to 18.2 and a most outstanding player trophy at the East Regional.

That's not a coincidence.

"So much of it is feel," Pauga said. "It looks like he's messing around, but as we go he just has this ability to say, 'This is what's working. This is what isn't working.' It's his ability to try new things and take risks, knowing he might lose a game in the process."


All of that tinkering, though, gives way to straight up "Rain Man"-style planning for March, a schedule broken up into 15- to 20-minute increments like a basketball round of speed dating.

This past weekend in Syracuse, for example, the Spartans played Friday night against Oklahoma. That game tipped at 10 p.m. ET. As soon as it was over, two assistant coaches charged with the next game's scouting headed back to the hotel. A team meal was ordered and a 15-minute video of the next opponent, Louisville, prepped to show the players upon their return.

Once the Spartans were tucked in bed, Izzo hunkered down with his work supplies: game film, a packet of stats, a bucket of ice for soda and chicken fingers.

"God bless him, he loves chicken fingers," Pauga said. "At the Big Ten tournament, we had brunch because of the game time. So there's all this breakfast food, you know like eggs and things, and chicken fingers for him."

The next day, the off day, followed the same pattern, alternating between 20-minute film sessions and 20-minute ballroom walkthroughs, with practice sprinkled in between.

"I figure their attention span, they're tired of this and that, so I try to keep it shorter," Izzo said. "It's worked well for us."

To say the least.

No one is as good on the short turnaround as Michigan State. With the win against Louisville, the Spartans are 21-4 in the second game of any given NCAA tournament weekend, including 13-1 in the round of 32. For the past 18 years, the Spartans have made the NCAA tournament. They've reached the Sweet 16 in 11 of them.

"They prepare, I think, better than most tournament teams," Heathcote said. "They don't go into any game thinking, 'Let's just play our game and see what happens.' They don't ever act like they're that good. They always are looking at things to take away defensively or capitalize on offensively. What they do is extremely difficult."


Back to the guy with the dog, because the story factors into all of this.

What drives Izzo isn't entirely different than for most coaches -- an incurable case of competitiveness, the hope for a few extra zeros on a paycheck -- but he's also a softy, a lovable goof who annually makes a fool out of himself on Midnight Madness and willingly plays an accordion … in public.

He is unlike anyone else when it comes to succeeding when it matters most, yet everywhere else an ordinary everyman.

For all his barking and general bulldog feistiness, Izzo is beloved by his players because he loves them right back. There may be no coach who has been hugged, lifted, twisted and used more as an arm rest in team pictures.

"He always believes in us," Valentine said. "That never changes."

A shrewd businessman with a soul, that's what Fife called Izzo. It's a perfect descriptor for a man who has managed to work the business of basketball into incomparable success yet retain an air of genuineness that makes it seem so effortless.

"I don't want to make this sound like an Izzo lovefest, but he inspires people to believe they can get things done because he cares. That's the secret," said Fife, a former Indiana star. "I come from the Bob Knight program of, 'Do your job.' And the similarities are that both are very demanding and also demand that you be accountable. But Tom also understands how to work with people and motivate people. He takes time with his players, with his staff, with just about everybody."

So when a guy walks into the Michigan State basketball offices with his dog, there's no retinal eye scan to get into the place, no secretary trickier to snooker than a bouncer.

No, there's just a head coach, a chair and a dog to pet.