When Tom Izzo was picked as Jud Heathcote’s successor at Michigan State in the early ’90s, he received counsel from then-Spartans football coach George Perles. At that point, Perles oversaw the football program and doubled as MSU’s athletic director; he was the one who cleared Izzo as coach-in-waiting. When that happened, Perles told the young coach that it was crucial to write up a “good contract.”
“Why?” Izzo asked.
“Because eventually you’re gonna get fired,” Perles said. “You’ve got to make sure the contract is good enough to save you, or at least pay.”
Izzo laughed. Here he was, still a couple years from taking the head gig and Perles already had him on the street. Not long after that, Perles was out of a job. More than 30 years removed from that meeting between the two, Izzo is in the Hall of Fame and ranks among the greatest coaches in college basketball history. It’s been an epic run, but MSU’s 2023-24 campaign has brought on some late-career turbulence.
Michigan State is in the unusual position of being an NCAA Tournament bubble team in mid-January. The Spartans were ranked No. 4 in the preseason, yet sit at 10-7 and are merely 2-4 in the Big Ten. Izzo is staring down the possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 27 years. It’s the third-longest streak in NCAA history and it carries as much meaning to Izzo as maybe anything he’s accomplished at Michigan State.
“It means the world to me,” Izzo told CBS Sports. “Consistency is probably more important to me than any other thing. Because consistency means that you’ve been able to weather through different storms.”
MSU hasn’t been consistent this season, and as a result, Izzo’s also been increasingly vocal — even more than usual — about his discontent with where college athletics finds itself in this evolving age.
“I’m healthy. I love my job. I’m really questioning my profession,” Izzo said, later adding, “there’s so many factors that are involved here that I just got to do a better job of.”
Izzo’s future has increasingly been a topic of curiosity across college basketball lately, in part because Hall-of-Famers are stepping away with increased cadence. Roy Williams in 2021, then Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright in 2022, Jim Boeheim last year. Nick Saban, a long-time friend and former colleague of Izzo’s, shocked the sports world with his retirement decision less than a week ago.
“I know Saban pretty well, talked to him over the last couple of years, and saying that, I was shocked,” Izzo said. “I was shocked Roy got out. I was shocked Jay Wright got out.”
Some have wondered if Izzo will soon be next. Could he retire as soon as this year?
“No,” Izzo told CBS Sports on Monday.
And why not?
“Yesterday,” Izzo said. “Yesterday is what it’s all about.”
On Sunday, Izzo’s son Steven, a senior walk-on, scored the first points of his career on an unlikely three-point play. This was the scene. This is some of the best college sports has to offer.
Izzo told me it wasn’t so much his son making that basket as it was the reaction and joy from the team. Despite a 10-7 record, he’s uplifted by this group and it’s those players who want to bleed Spartan green that keep him fastened to the job.
“There’s good guys around, I just gotta get more of them where the program matters, the team matters,” Izzo said. “There’s nothing wrong with NIL, there’s nothing wrong with transferring, but when you can do it because you don’t like something that was said to you, or whatever some of these guys are. ‘I had to work a little harder, so I’m going to leave,’ I just think it’s ridiculous. And if I get sick of that, that’s what would get me out.”
To hear Izzo lay it out, if MSU were to fall short of making the 2024 NCAA Tournament, that would only fuel him more into next season and the one after that.
“I’m too stubborn to even think about doing it in the near future because I almost want to fight the system,” Izzo said. “And the system might get me. The system may get me. But the system may not get me, either.”
Over the course of a 40-minute interview, Izzo ran the gamut on the whys of Michigan State’s issues this season (lingering hangover from injuries, odds-defying poor shooting performances, over-reliance + expectation from freshmen, the schedule) and he wasn’t deflecting blame whatsoever. A 10-7 record doesn’t have him gripping the way you might think. It’s all the other stuff that has him revved.
Izzo (who turns 69 at the end of the month) is a fascinating personality at a time of massive change in college athletics. Izzo told me he thinks he can adapt better than a lot of the players in this environment, but at the same time, he refuses to submit to conditions that have drastically altered around him in the past half-decade.
“That’s why I say more things publicly. How many coaches you think feel just like me?” he said. “I don’t begrudge anybody. If I have to take a transfer for next year, I’ll take a transfer. I’m just hoping I can keep my culture. I’m hoping I can do it the way — and some of it depends on the kids I have, and so on. It depends on the opportunities they have — if I got a kid, and all of a sudden, somebody offers him a zillion dollars to go, he’s probably going and then I’m the one that has to adjust.”
Izzo believes Saban, 72, got out for a lot of NIL and portal-related reasons. They met as coaching pups in the 1980s, when they were still finding their place in their respective sports.
“We were so young — that’s when we were just trying to fight for our jobs to stay alive,” Izzo said with a laugh. “I think we believed in the same things and the way you had to get it done, but I think Nick took it to another level and, partly, his recruiting. He recruited the top players and yet found a way to discipline them like they were regular Joes. And that’s a feat in itself because how do you get the elite of the elite to still work like Nick got his guys to work, so I’ve always I’ve always respected that and tried to follow in those footsteps.”
The similarities between the two have been on display since they got their jobs as Michigan State head coaches in 1995: Old-school disciplinarians who bond themselves like solder to intense work ethic, life-long player relationships and a sick hunt of adversity. Izzo and Saban live in a headspace where, the harder something is to achieve, the better it makes the person and the program. If it’s easy, something went wrong.
Izzo has always come across much more everyman than Saban, perhaps in part because of Izzo’s long-established openness in front of a microphone or tape recorder. To hear Izzo lay it out, though, Saban was the simpler one.
“Nick is a class guy. You’d be surprised. His bark’s way worse than his bite and he’s loyal as the day is long,” Izzo said. “We recruited together, we fundraised together. I just feel like he was always a coach’s coach. I came from small-town America, he came from smaller-town America. And I always appreciated that about him. He never forgot where he came from. After games I’d go to his house, he’d have some of the people from West Virginia there. It was awesome. Nick’s a regular guy that did an extraordinary job.”
It’s clear that the retirements of so many of Izzo’s friends are having an impact on him. But he’s dug in. The fight is far from over.
“At the end of the day, the kids are the ones who are going to lose,” Izzo said re: NIL legislation and the transfer portal and little resistance to multi-time transfers with immediate eligibility. It’s a maxim he’s been sharing for a few years now with anyone who will listen.
“My point is, I’m not worried about getting fired. It’s not me that’s going to lose,” Izzo said. “It’s these poor kids that are so confused and got so many other values and interests. And it used to be an honor and a privilege to play for a school and now I don’t think it’s that way.”
I asked Izzo if he’s thought about the way he’ll retire, or if he has any idea of how soon that will be.
“I’ve never thought of what exactly I’ll do. I know what I won’t do,” Izzo said. “Jud had a farewell tour. Mike did. I have a lot of respect for those guys. I’m sure I’ll be more in the Jay Wright and Nick (Saban) way of doing it. When it’s over, it’s over and I’m walking away. But I’ve got a good recruiting class, I’ve got an opportunity to coach my former player’s son, which I’m really looking forward to — (Jase) Richardson — I’m in a good place in every part for me, except the frustration of the day-to-day, never knowing where you are, you know? That’s hard.”
It’s an era of player empowerment. It’s hard for a lot of coaches who spent decades doing it one way to accept a new order. A cynic could see Izzo’s worldview as selfish or outdated. For him, it’s just the opposite. For years he’s been vocalizing to leaders across college athletics why there needs to be a balance between player empowerment and player accountability. He’s trying to hold others to his own standard. It’s what got him to the top tier of his profession. Now he’s holding on, hoping it won’t drag him away.
“I worry about that every day, I swear to God to you I worry about it,” Izzo said as we wrapped the interview. “Some [doubt my sincerity] because it’s always self-serving. If it was self-serving I would’ve taken a pro job for a lot more money. If it was self-serving I’d get out of it. I still care about these guys. And I’m lucky because I actually got a pretty good bunch of guys and I got some good guys coming in, and so we’ll see. I think we still got a couple of runs in us.”
Gonzaga’s NCAA tourney streak also in jeopardy
Michigan State isn’t the only team with a longstanding NCAA Tournament streak dancing in the wind.
On Monday the Gonzaga Bulldogs (11-5) fell out of the AP rankings for the first time in 144 weeks (last instance: March 2016). The Bulldogs are in the rare position of being a bubble team: 0-4 Quad 1 mark, 2-5 Q1/2 record. The Zags have hit mid-January without a top-50 win. The last time that happened was 2001; that squad went 16-1 in WCC play and only earned a No. 12 seed.
Gonzaga has made every Big Dance since 1999. GU’s chances of getting in sit at 55.5%.
This is the worst 3-point shooting team (31.7%) ever under Mark Few. And for as well-rounded as Anton Watson has been (and I really like how he’s increased his value), the Bulldogs seemingly lack a capital-D Dude for the first time in eons.
Exacerbating the issue is Gonzaga’s league. The WCC lost BYU to the Big 12; the Cougars are well on their way to a single-digit seed. Saint Mary’s (13-6) is 31st in the NET, San Francisco (14-4) is No. 43. After five straight seasons of being No. 8 or 9 in conference strength, the WCC has dipped to 11th at KenPom.com this season. That has broader impacts on Gonzaga’s résumé-building potential after losing four non-con Quad 1 games. The WCC is tracking toward one-bid-league status. That last happened in 2018, when Gonzaga was a No. 4 seed and Saint Mary’s was a top seed in the NIT.
Hope is far from lost, though. The Zags have a roadie at Kentucky in February that is enormous for their at-large case. (Well-timed, too. GU hasn’t played a February nonconference road game since 2016.) This would be moot if Gonzaga wins two games in the WCC Tournament, as it’s done so many times, and gets the automatic bid. But even if that’s the case, GU could be staring down a double-digit seed for only the second time since 2012.
It’s hard to envision Michigan State AND Gonzaga both missing the tournament. Surely at least one of them is going to break through.
Eight great smaller-sized high-major venues
Last week’s, a downsizing that cut capacity by 27% and has been lauded across college athletics. The piece prompted a lot of reaction, which got me to thinking about the high-major teams with similar setups. Specifically, the schools that play in smaller buildings that A) are right-sized to the basketball program’s fan base/community, and/or B) are venues still in good-or-great shape.
Which teams really have it going in some sweet digs? My cut-off capacity is 10,000. That in mind, here are eight great basketball barns that pass the Goldilocks test (not too big, not too small, just right).
Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (9,314). A beautiful feature to college basketball is that its most popular program has maintained a home in a gothic cathedral for generations. Duke could have justified building a 14,000-seat arena 30 years ago, but thankfully no such idea ever got momentum. I hope they are still playing Duke basketball games in this building 3,000 years from now.
Mississippi’s The Pavilion (9,500). It’s not just size; having a properly dimensioned new building is also key. Ole Miss’ digs are eight years old and this might be the most overlooked/underrated power-conference barn in the sport.
Auburn’s Neville Arena (9,121). “The Jungle” opened in 2010 and has developed a reputation as one of the three best home court advantages in the SEC. Of the places I’ve not yet visited, Neville is in my top five.
Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse (9,100). No introduction needed for arguably the holiest of hoops houses we have. I will forever cherish the fact that I got to cover NCAA Tournament games at this venue, because it very well may never happen again. (Though it SHOULD! Even if only for the First Four!)
Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena (7,039). Covered a game here about five years ago, right after renovations were finished. What a gem, maybe the most underrated high-major spot we have. Great sight lines everywhere, the remade concourse is easy for all to move through. The arena works well for all because Northwestern backers AND the visiting team’s fans can all obtain tickets due to NU’s smaller fan base.
TCU’s Schollmaier Arena (6,800). Haven’t been here but have heard great things. The building was erected in the early ’60s but it was renovated and right-sized in 2015. It’s in the style of Mackey Arena: the Horned Frogs play “in the round” and almost never go out in front of swaths of empty seats because TCU shouldn’t be playing in an arena for more than 7,000.
Villanova’s Finneran Pavilion (6,500). Sloping ceilings, a uniquely shaped spot for an elite program. It’s the right size for a private school with a proud history. Nova plays games every year at Wells Fargo Center, but the Finn is their true home and it fits like a glove.
Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center (6,000). Every game is a tough ticket. The Kennel ranks in my personal top 10 venues in college basketball, regardless of size. It turns 20 years old this year but barely looks a day over 10. The Kennel pulls off my favorite attribute about the best venues: It feels big and small at the same time.
There are 80 teams in the Big Six conferences. As of Tuesday morning, only nine of them have yet to lose a road game in league play: Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Georgia, NC State, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas Tech and Wisconsin.
The AP Top 25 rankings going final on the Monday after Selection Sunday serves to reflect as the last snapshot of the regular season. The NCAA Tournament is such a large event that the Final Four and national champion are etched in history and easy to recall. But the tournament is a different beast from the three-month-plus marathon to get to the making of the bracket. I think there should be one final AP poll on the Tuesday after the national title game, but in absence of that, the Coaches’ Poll does fill that void.
The answer is 99% yes. The 1% is reserved for an out-of-nowhere retirement or an unthinkable scenario where Andy Enfield is lured to coach somewhere else. USC’s a bust this year, but Enfield’s won 61% of his games through 10.5 seasons and has had an NCAAT-level team the past four years. This is Year 11, and he’s more likely than not to last 15 years in LA.
>>📬 Jay via Bluesky asks: Will the blowback increase as we closer to this new-look NIT in March and do you think there might be teams that just refuse to play in it?
If you missed it in the fall, theallowing automatic NIT bids for every team that wins its regular-season but does not receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The decision was widely criticized because it’s a transparent move to reduce mid-major inclusion in favor of underachieving power-conference teams. I do think there will be some blowback, but because the NIT is in the shadow of the shadow of the shadow of the NCAA Tournament, I don’t expect major fallout. The NIT also experiences opt-outs with regularity, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we get that again in 2024.
Norlander’s news + nuggets
• Old Dominion coach Jeff Jones suffered a heart attack in December, which prompted further check-ins with health professionals. On Sunday, ODU announced Jones will undergo a fourth treatment phase against prostate cancer and is going to be on leave from the program for the rest of the season. I am wishing him nothing but the best in health and recovery.
• Valparaiso got its first MVC win on Sunday. It was also the first conference win for Roger Powell as a head coach. Of all the places to get it: Illinois State, a place Powell knows well.
• It’s been a melodramatic season for Michigan thus far, but Monday had to feel great. A home win over hated rival Ohio State in a standalone game on national TV — and for the first time since they played together, the Fab Five Chris Webber and Jalen Rose mending fences after years of relationship fracture is just the latest bit of good news in what’s been a huge sports week in the state of Michigan.at a Michigan home game.
• With Gonzaga falling out of the AP poll this week, these teams have the longest active streaks of AP Top 25 appearances: Houston (75), Kansas (54), Tennessee (49).
• The Mountain West’s top six teams have played 100 games and are a combined 84-16. BartTorvik.com has it at 82.1% that the league will have either five or six teams in the NCAA Tournament. Six bids is officially on the table, and if it happens, it’s likely the MW would at worst tie for the third-most 2024 NCAA bids in that scenario.
• Marquette with a get-right performance on Monday vs. Villanova: An 87-74 win, 63 paint points is a Big East record this season, Tyler Kolek got back to normal with 21 points and 11 assists, and MU only had three turnovers. The Golden Eagles still have Final Four DNA.
• Last summer, CBS Sports about major calendrical overhauls that were coming to men’s college basketball. On Friday, finally, they were officially pushed through.
• The 2024 NBA Draft is reportedly considering moving to a two-day format, with Day 1 being the first round and Day 2 being the second round. It feels unnecessary, but if it’s to be done, the obvious move here is to make Day 1 all about the lottery, then have picks 15 through 60 take up Day 2. If you start Day 2 with pick No. 31 in the second round, there will be very little anticipation whatsoever.
• Interesting data below here. It reinforces my hypothesis that the top of college hoops this season is a tick down from what it’s been on average in the past five-to-seven years. This development will likely lead to a batch of top seeds (1s, 2s or 3s) failing to reach the Sweet 16.