Big Ten

After early Big Ten Tournament exit, Tom Izzo laments Michigan State freshmen's lack of March understanding

After early Big Ten Tournament exit, Tom Izzo laments Michigan State freshmen's lack of March understanding

WASHINGTON — Coming into the season, Tom Izzo's quartet of highly touted freshmen seemed to be the reason to be excited about Michigan State's chances.

Now that the time of tournaments has finally arrived, the youth of this Spartans team might be the reason its March stay is unusually brief.

The Hall of Fame coach was upset following Michigan State's loss to Minnesota in Thursday's quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Spartans didn't play well, struggling mightily to shoot the ball. Izzo was so unhappy with his team's performance he said he was shocked that Michigan State was still in the game down to the very end of what ended up a mere five-point decision.

But it was how his team played that got the man whose name could be a solid replacement candidate for the third month on the calendar real, as he put it, disappointed.

"I was disappointed," Izzo said. "There haven't been many times that I've been disappointed in this team this year. Today was one of them."

Which brings us to the freshmen. Michigan State teams of the past have relied on veterans of the program to build upon the years of postseason success. But Izzo is short on those this time around. It's not that the statistics were exceptionally awful Thursday. It's that the young players didn't seem to understand how to play in March.

"Maybe it's my fault, because I talked to them about it last night. I guarded against this," Izzo said. "I know what happens. You win a game. You get back to the hotel. You got an hour, then you're going to a gym to practice on the next team. But that's what one-and-done time is all about. But they don't know that. AAU ball, if you lose this game, you probably play another one in a couple hours, right? ... I just think too much, winning is never valued. It's not like they on purpose said, 'We're not going to play hard.' They just don't understand the rise of the level that it takes.

"One thing we've been really good at over the years, why we've been a good turnaround team, is taking one game, by the next day being prepared for the next team. It is a little more difficult when you have so many young guys. So I'll learn a lesson, too. Maybe we got to change how we did it."

Michigan State isn't used to being out of this event so early. The Spartans played in the last three Big Ten Tournament title games and won two of them. You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find the last time Michigan State didn't reach the semifinals — coincidentally, that run also ended with a loss to Minnesota.

But as good as Izzo's been in the conference tournament, and there's been no one better, he's made his name in the Big Dance, which comes next week. Michigan State's first-round exit a season ago seemed the fluke of flukes. But what if, in what has been a relatively down year for this perennial power of a program, the Spartans' NCAA tournament stay reflects the challenges of this season? Exiting the conference tournament on Day 3 might be a rarity, but so too were the five non-conference losses and 14 losses on the season.

Again, the statistics weren't all bad from the four fab freshmen. Miles Bridges scored a lot of points, leading the team with 20, and Nick Ward had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. But that duo combined to go just 11-for-29 from the field. Bridges was 2-for-11 shooting the 3. Joshua Langford had six points. Cassius Winston was scoreless. And surely Izzo would have some critiques to make that involve stuff that didn't show up in the box score.

But the numbers were secondary to the effort. It takes a special kind of mentality to win as many games this time of year as Izzo's teams have. This team didn't have that mentality Thursday.

"It's a learning lesson. It seems like the whole damn year has been a learning lesson," Izzo said. "We learned again today, if you don't come at this level — it's not an AAU tournament, and play 40 minutes, you can play better the second half, you can play better in different parts. It's not going to be good enough. I think we'll learn from it, grow from it, hopefully do a better job if we get a chance to play again."

The good news is the Spartans will get another chance. Despite this down year they're considered a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament field, and maybe Izzo can work some March magic again.

But in this season that hasn't quite lived up to Michigan State's standards, maybe there's no way he can.

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.


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