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2018 NCAA Tournament: The Myth Of Michigan State In March

Is Izzo’s reputation overblown?

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Syracuse v Michigan State
DETROIT, MI - MARCH 18: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts during the first half against the Syracuse Orange in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Little Caesars Arena on March 18, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Well, Duke had a nice NCAA Tournament run.

The first weekend was great, but obviously the season must end in the Sweet 16 when the Blue Devils square off with the invincible-in-March Michigan State Spartans.

At least that’s what I learned from watching all the talking heads on ESPN and CBS last week.

You say the Spartans didn’t make it out of the second round? How can that be?

Jay Bilas is the voice of ESPN’s college basketball and assured us that Michigan State was a lock to come out of the Midwest Regional and win it all. His sidekick Seth Greenberg also picked the Spartans. The third member of the ESPN college basketball desk – ex-Duke guard Jason Williams – actually picked Arizona to win it all (how did that work out?), but he too had Michigan State coming out of the Midwest. Dick Vitale picked Michigan State. Over on CBS, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith picked Michigan State. Ex-President Barack Obama picked Michigan State.

A survey of the top 25 ESPN “experts” showed that Michigan State was the top choice to win it all. Fully 19 of the 25 “experts” picked the Spartans to win the Midwest Regional.

That was an astonishing consensus of opinion for a No. 3 seed, one that started the tournament as the 10th-ranked team in the field by the Selection Committee.

On the whole, the power metrics rank Michigan State slightly higher than that – but not so much higher that they are an overwhelming choice:

  • Pomeroy ranked the Spartans 6th going into the tournament.
  • ESPN’s BPI ranked the Spartans 6th
  • RPI ranked the Spartans 15th
  • Sagarin ranks the Spartans 4th
  • The final AP poll ranked the Spartans 5th
  • The most recent coaches’ poll ranks the Spartans 5th

That’s very good, but hardly a basis for the “expert” sentiment that made Michigan State such an overwhelming favorite.

The Spartans finished the regular season 29-4, but there were some serious flaws in their resume – flaws that a real expect should have noticed.

For instance, Michigan State played a remarkably weak schedule (somewhat caused by the unusual weakness of the Big Ten). Did you know that their record against teams that would qualify for the NCAA Tournament was an un-inspiring 2-4 (wins over UNC and Purdue; losses to Duke, Ohio State and Michigan twice).

Maybe that had something to do with the No. 3 seed that so shocked Joe Lunardi. How could they not be a No. 1 seed? Maybe because their resume looked more like a good mid-major than that of a power from a power five conference.

I also wondered if any of the talking heads who were so sold on the Spartans would ever mention that to reach the Final Four, Michigan State would have to get through Duke – and that Izzo’s career record against the Blue Devils is a horrific 1-11.

Now, I know that doesn’t guarantee anything, but shouldn’t it be mentioned?

One of those losses occurred earlier this season, when Duke knocked off the Spartans 88-81 in the Champions Classic in Chicago.

I did hear that mentioned, although it was always with a dismissive note that it was early in the season and that Michigan State has gotten a lot better since then. I didn’t hear Bilas or Greenberg mention that Duke star Marvin Bagley played just 10 minutes in that game before he was injured. And while Michigan State probably did improve since November, what about the team that started four freshmen in their third college game? Could they have gotten better too? Did Duke’s defense perhaps get better when Coach K switched to zone full time?

Look, I’m not saying that every talking head should have picked Duke over the Spartans in their bracket. But shouldn’t some of them have picked the Devils – or maybe No. 1 seed Kansas -- to go to the Final Four out of the Midwest? I mean (1) every computer model favored the Blue Devils; (2) Coach K has a history of dominating Izzo; (3) Duke already beat the Spartans head to head; and (4) Michigan State was not very good this season against NCAA-level teams (for the record, Duke was 9-4 against NCAA teams).

I don’t expect expert commentary from Barkley and Smith – they are a comedy act who don’t watch college basketball (they’re NBA guys). But the ESPN commentators – Bilas, Greenberg, Vitale and Williams – are paid to focus on the college game.

None of them voiced doubts about the Spartans?

I think it’s because they have bought into the narrative that paints Michigan State coach Tom Izzo as the Master of March. He’s celebrated for his postseason success.

But is that narrative true?

Look at the record, starting in 1998. That’s when Izzo first reached the NCAA Tournament. His Spartans reached the Sweet 16 that season. A year later, MSU was in the Final Four (beaten by Duke). His 2000 Spartans won it all – still Izzo’s only national title.

So, I would argue that 1998 is the most favorable starting point for Izzo. True, it leaves out a significant portion of K’s career – two national titles, seven Final Fours and 40 NCAA Tournament wins -- but we’re only going to look at Izzo’s record in his tenure at Michigan State and see how it compares with others.

Is Izzo the best NCAA Tournament coach in that time?


Is Izzo the second-best NCAA Tournament coach in that time?


Is Izzo the third-best NCAA Tournament coach in that time?


Is Izzo the fourth-best NCAA Tournament coach in that time?

Well, maybe – but only because Jim Calhoun retired in 2012. Of course, the UConn coach accomplished much more between 1998-2012 than Izzo has done between 1998-2018, so the point is debatable.

Who are the most successful NCAA coaches since 1998?

Let’s look at some numbers (1998-2017 -- before this year’s tournament):

Coach, school National titles Final Fours Sweet 16 NCAA wins Pct.
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke 3 5 15 51 .750
Roy Williams, UNC 3 7 12 56 .778
Jim Calhoun, UConn 3 4 8 35 .795
Billy Donovan, Florida 2 4 8 35 .745
John Calipari, Memph/Ky 1 5 10 38 .760
Tom Izzo, Michigan State 1 7 13 47 .712

Izzo’s record is very good … but not better than any of the other names on the list. Three coaches have three titles and a fourth has two. Calhoun’s wins are a bit down since he retired after 2012. The same for Donovan, who bolted for the NBA.

Izzo has the worst NCAA winning percentage of the five coaches.

The Michigan State coach does have a knack for reaching the Final Four. Only Williams (who did it twice at Kansas after ’98) can match him. Izzo has qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year since 1998 and only Krzyzewski can match that. But the MSU coach has lost four times in the first round and six times in the first weekend (this year will make seven first-weekend exits).

My point is that while Izzo deserves respect for his NCAA record, he doesn’t deserve the adulation he gets. He’s not the best coach in March.

He has not been as good in March as Krzyzewski, Calipari or Roy Williams (despite his early exit this year). Calhoun won at a higher rated in postseason.

This year’s second-round flameout should reinforce that message.

Will Bilas, Greenberg and company notice … or will we see the same delusions a year from now?

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