Michigan State's Tom Izzo has been one of the NCAA Tournament's Geppettos over the last two decades.
It’s a safe pick. A smart pick. A sound pick.
Seriously, in a year when no team, or group of teams, stands so far above the pack within the latest NCAA Tournament, where else would it make more sense to go in choosing your expected champion than the most consistently good college basketball entity in March, especially when the same guy continues to run its show.
Not for nothing, but when a recent calendar emerged with the first three months labeled as January, February and then Izzo … all yours truly did was nod in agreement.
Frankly, when it comes to his sport’s big dance, no one this side of Coach K seems to maneuver so nimbly as Tom Izzo, the Sparants’ long-time head coach.
Doesn’t matter who else is out there, or what they bring to the table. Izzo’s outfits always are prepared. Tough and prepared.
They can play fast. They can play slow. They can shoot. They can handle. They can defend. They ALWAYS can, and do, bang, backing down from no one.
Year in, year out, doesn’t matter the players’ names or their talent levels, if Izzo has them on the floor, they’re ready to go, and ready to challenge for a national title.
Oh, Michigan State has only claimed one during his tenure, which started in 1995. That came in 2000. But the Spartans have been to seven Final Fours under his tutelage, nine Elite Eights, 13 Sweet Sixteens and received 19 bids to the tournament.
In short, when it is “money” time, which certainly is what March represents in college hoops, count on Izzo and Co. to cash in. Seeded second in the Midwest for this 68-team NCAA extravaganza, the Spartans could argue, legitimately, to being superior to the region’s No. 1, Virginia.
Michigan State has a better record, 29-5 to 26-7, and, unlike UVa, won its conference (Big Ten) tournament title.
But, here’s the thing, you could make legit cases for many teams being better than both … and vice versa.
That is why Michigan State makes so much sense, if, you know, a title pick is a must and you can’t just sit back and enjoy the tournament without making one.
Izzo’s track record, regardless of any obstacles put before him or whatever talent he has at his disposal, of succeeding at this time of year trumps all others during the last two decades – by a lot.
Plus, he just may have the best all-around player in the game with senior forward Denzel Valentine (19.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.6 apg) on his side, too.
So, Izzo State it is.
It’s not Michigan State, even with Izzo, but Kansas. The Jayhawks appropriately received top overall billing in the tournament after going 30-4, winning the Big 12 regular season for the 12th straight time and then capturing the conference tourney title. They have four double-digit scorers, headed by seemingly eight-year starter Perry Ellis, go 8-9 deep on their rotation, have athleticism across the board and one of the best coaches in the country with Bill Self.
So, really, Kansas should win the whole thing. It’s just Self ain’t Izzo, and the Jayhawks, unlike the Spartans, have an annoying habit of bowing out early every March.
Going trendy here … Gonzaga. The Zags, seeded 11th in the Midwest, square off with red-hot Seton Hall, seeded sixth, Thursday night in Denver. Kind of a double-whammy here for Hall: A) the Pirates have to be a bit tired/overwhelmed at winning the Big East title, beating two top-5 teams (Xavier and Villanova) on back-to-back nights in order to do so, and B) the Zags have two NBA-caliber big men in Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis.
Ironically, this is probably the least respected Zags squad in a decade and it probably will make the school’s longest run … ever.
Take your pick, Monmouth, Saint Mary’s, St. Bonaventure … they all deserved to receive bids before the likes of Syracuse, Southern Cal, Michigan, Texas Tech and Oregon State. Both the Hawks and Gaels won 27 games this season, earned their conference regular-season crowns and reached their conference tourney title matchup. The Bonnies topped the A-10 in the regular season and were ousted in the conference tourney semis by NCAA qualifier Davidson in overtime.
The bigger-name schools noted above … basically got in on bigger-name only. Sad.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org
FINEST OF PHILLY HOOPS
Friday, March 18
Barclays Center | Brooklyn, NY
(2) Villanova vs. (15) UNC-Asheville, 12:40 p.m.
(10) Temple vs. (7) Iowa, 3:10 p.m.
Spokane Arena | Spokane, WA
(8) Saint Joseph’s vs. (9) Cincinnati, 9:57
*-All Games on truTV
Let’s get right to it.
Temple, my one alma mater, probably doesn’t deserve a spot in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Oh, the Owls overachieved in winning the American Athletic Conference regular-season crown, no doubt. In the circuit’s pecking order, Temple’s talent level ranked, at best, sixth.
So, you gotta commend what coach Fran Dunphy and Co. did this season. But, really, is a team that entered its postseason tournament as the No. 1 seed and got boat-raced by another squad it beat twice previously, and one not known for NCAA success, worthy of one of the 68 slots available?
Put it this way, Big Five rivals Villanova and Saint Joseph’s, fuhgettaboutit. They were no-brainers. The only thing in question with either by the time the weekend rolled around was where either would be seeded and in what region. They had earned their spots long before making runs into their respectively conference tourney title games.
Temple, no. Even in accumulating 20 victories in the regular season, the Owls gave “winning ugly” a bad name. They had no business beating Cincinnati or Connecticut once, never mind twice apiece – and if Saturday’s blowout loss to UConn didn’t confirm that for you, a lifeless effort against a group of Huskies that had just played an exhausting four-overtime game the night before against Cincy, then nothing will.
Still, Philly has to be happy to get three city teams into the Big Dance.
Oddly, the one out of the three that received the least amount of attention all season certainly looks to be the best at the moment. With the Owls surprising in the AAC, especially knocking off the nation’s last unbeaten, Southern Methodist, in late January, and Villanova rising to the top of the national polls for three weeks in February, Saint Joe’s was the forgotten soul from Philly.
But with junior forward DeAndre Bembry, the A-10’s player of the year, looking like the mid-major’s version of Michigan State do-it-all standout Denzel Valentine, Isaiah Miles turning into a double-double machine and Phil Martelli dropping his on-camera, stand-up act long enough to focus on coaching, the Hawks look to be the most formidable.
How formidable? Just don’t be surprised if they advance into the second weekend after knocking off top-seeded Oregon in the West this coming Sunday. After that, they’re good enough to match the 2004 Saint Joe’s of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West run to the Elite Eight.
The other two? Temple would have to upset Iowa in its first game to make any noise, but wouldn’t get past Villanova in its next game anyway, and Villanova, conversely, better hope Temple does win that first game if it hopes to advance out of the first weekend, because Iowa could prove to be the end of the Wildcats’ line.
All three locals getting bounced would be a worst-case scenario for Philly hoops fans. Unfortunately, it is a distinct possibility.