PHOTO: Michigan State coach Tom Izzo opened his 25th straight NCAA tournament guiding the Spartans to a first-round win over USC.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
It’s true a Final Four opportunity escaped Michigan State with the Sweet Sixteen loss to Kansas State, but that’s a backwards view – an over-and-back violation of the program’s 25-year streak of NCAA tournament trips.
The drought, after all, is only three seasons!
Plenty of schools and coaches – including elite names — would trade places for the consistency Michigan State enjoys under Tom Izzo. His longest drought is four years, 2011-14.
First, let’s explain a coach can’t have a Final Four drought until sometime after the first one. If there are more trips, then the years separating those Final Fours define a drought or not. Izzo’s first Final Four in 1999 was followed by two more — the 2000 national title and 2001.
You’ll recognize the names of 21st-century coaches with longer Final Four dry spells than Izzo and the Spartans:
— 9 years, Jim Boeheim, Syracuse: 2004-12.
— 7, John Calipari, Kentucky, 2016-23 (ongoing but not counting 2020, the pandemic year that canceled the tournament).
— 6, Roy Williams, North Carolina: 2010-15.
— 6, Jay Wright, Villanova, 2010-15.
— 6, Rick Pitino, Louisville, 2006-11.
And here are two more recognizable names who “suffered” through 4-year streaks like Izzo:
—4, Mike Krzyzewski, Duke, 1995-98.
—4, Jim Calhoun, Connecticut, 2005-2008.
Even North Carolina’s Dean Smith experienced an eight-year drought, 1983-90. Bob Knight had a five-year drought at Indiana, 1982-86. UCLA’s John Wooden? He was a slow starter, but he’s otherwise in another stratosphere. Wooden went 17 years before he made his first Final Four, 1961-62, and then went on runs of 13 of 14 Final Fours with 10 of 12 national titles.
In 2019, the Spartans’ most recent Final Four, they defeated Duke in the East Region final. Michigan State was ranked No. 5 in the nation and seeded No. 2 while defeating No. 15 seed Bradley, No. 10 seed Minnesota and No. 3 seed LSU. Duke, ranked and seeded No. 1, was led by Zion and the 5-Stars. Kenny Goins, a former walk-on, beat the Blue Devils with a late jumper.
In 2020, the Spartans seemed poised for another Final Four run, but the pandemic canceled the post-season. Izzo’s work in the 2019-20 season was a textbook on how to coach players to execute X’s and O’s and cope with life.
In early November, star point guard Cassius Winston lost his brother to suicide. Michigan State began the season 5-3 and slumped at mid-season, but the Spartans recovered to win six of their final seven games. The run forced a three-way tie for the Big Ten regular-season title with Maryland and Wisconsin. The late season run featured four wins against ranked Big Ten teams, including on the road at Maryland and at Penn State.
Here are chronological looks at Izzo’s Final Four seasons and “droughts,” starting with the current three-year dry spell, 2021-23.
— 2023: The Spartans were unranked nationally and seeded No. 7 in the East Region, but the Spartans defeated No. 10 seed USC and No. 2 seed Marquette (ranked No. 6) before falling in the Sweet Sixteen to No. 3 Kansas State (ranked No. 15).
— 2022: The Spartans, unranked and seeded No. 7 in the West Region, defeated Davidson before they lost in the Round of 32 to No. 2 seed Duke. The Blue Devils advanced to the Final Four.
— 2021: The Spartans opened in the First Four with a loss to UCLA, but the low seeding didn’t stop the Bruins from advancing to the Final Four.
2019 FINAL FOUR
Izzo’s eighth Final Four ended a three-year drought, 2016-18.
— 2018: The Spartans, seeded No. 3 in the Midwest, defeated No. 14 Bucknell but lost to No. 3 Syracuse in the second round. Syracuse fell in the Sweet Sixteen to Midwest runner-up Duke.
— 2017: The Spartans, seeded No. 9 in the Midwest, defeated No. 8 Miami but lost in the second round to No. 1 Kansas. The Jayhawks lost in the Elite Eight.
— 2016: The Spartans, seeded No. 2 in the Midwest, suffered arguably the most disappointing NCAA tournament game of Izzo’s career. Michigan State lost to No. 15 Middle Tennessee State, which fell in the next round to No. 10 Syracuse. The Orange advanced to the Final Four.
2015 FINAL FOUR
Izzo’s seventh Final Four ended his longest drought, 2011-14.
— 2014: The Spartans, seeded No. 4 in the East Region, defeated No. 13 Delaware, No. 12 Harvard and No. 1 Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen. But they lost to No. 7 Connecticut, the eventual national champion, in the Elite Eight.
— 2013: The Spartans, seeded No. 3 in the Midwest, defeated No. 14 Valparaiso and No. 6 Memphis before falling to No. 2 Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. Duke lost in the Elite Eight to No. 1 Louisville, the eventual national champion, although the title under Pitino was vacated for NCAA violations. Izzo also spares Michigan State NCAA suspicions.
— 2012: The Spartans, seeded No. 1 in the West, defeated No. 16 Long Island and No. 9 St. Louis before falling in the Sweet Sixteen to No. 4 Louisville. The Cardinals lost in the semifinal to eventual champion Kentucky.
— 2011: The Spartans, seeded No. 10 in the Southeast, lost in the first round to No. 7 UCLA. The Bruins lost in the second round to Southeast Region runner-up Florida.
BACK-TO-BACK FINAL FOURS
Izzo put together his second Final Four streak of his career with his fifth and sixth trips, 2009 and 2010, to end a three-year drought, 2006-08.
— 2008: The Spartans, No. 5 seed in the South, defeated No. 12 Temple and No. 4 Pitt before they lost in the Sweet Sixteen to No. 1 Memphis, the national runner-up. Memphis’ runner-up finish with Calipari has been vacated.
— 2007: The Spartans, No. 9 seed in the South, defeated No. 8 Marquette but lost to No. 1 North Carolina in the second round. North Carolina advanced to the South Region final, losing No. 2 Georgetown.
— 2006: The Spartans, No. 6 seed in the Washington, D.C, Region, lost in the first round to No. 11 George Mason. This seemed like Izzo’s most devastating tournament loss – until George Mason advanced to the Final Four. George Mason defeated No. 3 North Carolina, No. 7 Wichita State and No. 1 Connecticut. The run launched coach Jim Larranga’s jump to Miami, where this year he has the Hurricanes in their first Final Four.
2005 FINAL FOUR
Izzo’s fourth Final Four was about more than ending a three-year drought, 2002-04. It also established Izzo’s career as more than a one-trick pony. Plenty of coaches capture magic with a special recruit or class, but Spartans continued rolling with Final Four trips long beyond Mateen Cleaves leading the Spartans to the 1999 Final Four and the 2000 national title.
— 2004: The Spartans were the No. 7 seed in the St. Louis Region. They lost to No. 10 Nevada in the first round. Nevada defeated No. 2 Gonzaga before falling to No. 3 Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets advanced until losing in national championship to Connecticut.
— 2003: The Spartans were the No. 7 seed in South Region. They beat No. 10 Colorado, No. 2 Florida, No. 6 Maryland but lost in the Elite Eight to Texas. The Longhorns fell to in the Final Four semifinals to national champion Syracuse.
— 2002: The Spartans were No. 10 seed in the East Region. They lost in first round to No. 7 NC State. NC State lost in second round to Connecticut, which lost in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Maryland.
Izzo was in only his fourth season when he began his streak of three Final Fours. That was enough to define his Hall-of-Fame career, but it turned out he was just getting started.
Krzyzewski needed six seasons to reach is first Final Four. He was 75 when he retired after Duke advanced to his 13th and last Final Four in 2022. Boeheim needed 11 seasons retired the 2023 season at age 78, having reached his last Final Four in 2016 at 71.
Roy Williams retired after the 2021 season at age 70, having won the 2019 national title at age 69 in his last Final Four. Jay Wright was 60 when he retired after the 2022 Final Four.
Izzo seems rejuvenated at age 68. It’s another reason to breathe a sigh of relief he turned down many NBA overtures – those known and under the radar. Knocking on a Final Four door is part of Michigan State’s identity.
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