By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Let’s put Michigan State’s upcoming 20th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament in perspective and give it some texture.
Announced Sunday evening as the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region, the 19-14 Spartans will face No. 8 Miami of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The seeds for MSU’s remarkable streak were actually planted in Oklahoma 11 years before it began under 22nd-year Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo in 1998, when he landed his first full-time Division I coaching job at the University of Tulsa.
The stint with the Golden Hurricane lasted all of seven weeks because in June of 1986, Spartan head coach Jud Heathcote called Izzo back to Michigan State, where he had served three seasons as a restricted-earnings assistant, to fill the vacancy on his staff when Mike Deane left unexpectedly to become the head man at Siena.
Before MSU takes the floor against the Miami Hurricanes, Izzo will get reacquainted with opposing head coach and good friend Jim Larranaga, who ran the Bowling Green program from 1986-97, and whom Izzo faced four times – in 1988, ’89, ’90 and ’93 – as a Spartan assistant.
Their paths crossed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2006. Izzo was in his 11th season as the Michigan State head coach and Larranaga was in his eighth with George Mason University. After upsetting the Spartans in the first round in Dayton, the Patriots went on to also upend North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut along the way to the Final Four.
So much ground has been covered just within the context of the MSU-Miami matchup since Izzo coached the Spartans to an 83-71 victory over Eastern Michigan in his tourney debut on March 12, 1998, he couldn’t help but marvel at the way his injury-riddled, size-lacking and youth-saddled team reached this milestone.
“This whole thing isn’t about the ‘Mr. March,’ ” said Izzo, referring to the nickname by which he is known from coast to coast. “It’s about the program right now, and 20-straight years means a lot to me now, but not even close to what it will be later on.
“Some of you who were here with me at the beginning, the biggest thing I talked about even after we won (the national championship in 2000), was come back in 10 years, 15 years. Are we consistent? Not always great, but are we pretty consistent? Twenty straight years of doing something at this level is pretty consistent. I hope people appreciate it and I hope they appreciate it about this year’s team.”
Michigan State’s Big Ten-record tourney streak is the fourth-longest in NCAA history. Only Kansas, with 28 straight appearances, North Carolina (27) and Duke (22) have enjoyed longer strings of tournament bids, and only Kansas (28) and Duke (22) have longer active streaks. With 46 tournament wins, tied for eighth in NCAA history, Izzo’s streak is second among active coaches (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is on his 22nd) and tied for third all-time.
The 2016-17 Spartans will always be known for their highly touted freshman class that was counted on to deliver big-time results before it was ready because of health issues and a grueling schedule that at times came close to hobbling expectations.
But most of all, it will be remembered for the footprints it left in the sands of time by helping Michigan State go 20 for 20.
“I told my players that I appreciated the fact we pushed and pulled a lot this year,” Izzo said. “We went through a lot and they could have thrown in the towel a few times, (but) they hung in there. In general, I’m proud of this team for what they accomplished. I think there’s probably some relief.
“It won’t be the biggest accomplishment we’ve had and it will not go down with many of our fans as a real accomplishment, but … sometime from now maybe I’ll have a better appreciation for what they’ve gone through and what they’ve done.”
Michigan State’s status as a tournament team was tenuous for much of the season, especially while losing four of seven Big Ten games in January. Then, just as it appeared the Spartans all but clinched a berth with a victory over Wisconsin in the home finale, they lost their final regular season games at Illinois and Maryland.
They presumably sealed the deal with a decisive win against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, but it wasn’t a sure thing until the Spartans saw the words “Michigan State” pop up on the bracket during CBS’ Selection Sunday television broadcast.
“Yeah, there was a little anticipation,” said freshman forward and team scoring and rebounding leader Mile Bridges. “(The streak) was real important, mainly for Coach Iz because he’s put in a lot of work. But he’s not out there playing so we gotta do what we need to do to win.”
Senior wing Alvin Ellis III began his role in the streak in 2014 when the Spartans advanced to the East Regional finals. The following season, he played in a Final Four as a sophomore. He’s grateful not to be part of team that snapped the streak.
“We were excited to keep the streak alive,” Ellis said. “We know that we’ve got work to do so we can’t be that excited, but we cheered. It means a lot, just coming from this program that’s known for streaks and historic things like that.
“It means a lot to us, especially since I’ve been a part of a few. I want to keep winning.”
If it does that, MSU has the potential of becoming one of the biggest stories of the tournament if for no other reason than it’s the 321st youngest of 351 Division I teams and size-wise, it ranks 291st. The Spartans also rely on three players who joined the team as walk-ons to fill out the rotation while 311 games worth of experience, in the form of Eron Harris, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, will be sitting on the bench because of season-ending injuries.
Nevertheless, said Izzo, “I think they’re ready to try to make a run, and that’s the time of year it is. It’s going to come down to what everybody says, the matchups. Do you match up with somebody? The first thing I always look at is, ‘They say, who would you like to play?’ And I always say, ‘Who has the least amount of bigs?’ If somebody has four of them, that’s a problem for us. If somebody has one or two, that’s one big feather in our cap.”
The Spartans compare favorably to Miami from a size -- or lack thereof -- standpoint, and should they win will likely meet No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round. And a win there will send Michigan State back to Kansas City for the regionals, and a look back at even more ground covered by Izzo and the Spartans.