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Tom Izzo Meets with the Media Before NCAA Tournament

March 13, 2018

East Lansing, Mich. - Michigan State men's basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo met with the media on Tuesday afternoon in advance of the Spartans NCAA Tournament First Round game against Bucknell on Friday, March 16 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Tipoff is slated for 7:10 p.m.

The game will air live on CBS, with Ian Eagle calling the play-by-play, Jim Spanarkel serving as the color analyst and Allie LaForce on sidelines. The Spartan Sports Network radio call can be heard on one of 38 affiliates and on the web at SpartanSportsNetwork.com, with Will Tieman handling the play-by-play, Matt Steigenga serving as the expert color analyst and Dalton Shetler as the studio host. The game can also be heard on Sirius 138, XM 202 and Internet 963. The game can also be heard on Westwood One Radio, with Chris Carrino calling the play-by-play and P.J. Carlesimo serving as the color analyst.

Michigan State, the Big Ten Regular Season Champions, enters the NCAA Tournament with a 29-4 overall record and are the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region. Bucknell, the regular season and tournament champions of the Patriot League, are 25-9 overall and the No. 14 seed.

Opening statement...
Well, it's that time of year. I think like everybody else, everybody's excited. It doesn't get old, as we always say. I think our team is excited and that's important. I think after a late night Sunday, gathering the information and getting back to practice yesterday, we're going to play a very good team. I've seen some of the 3-seeds play -- or 14-seeds I should say and I promise you Bucknell's as good as, better than any of them. I look at them on tape and I saw them against two teams that we've played. I watched them against Maryland, who they were 15 up at halftime at Maryland. I watched them against North Carolina, who they were up early and within striking range the entire game. And um, they've got a couple of things that create problems. They've got three seniors; one's Player of the Year this year, one was Player of the Year last year. And those guys, in (Zach) Thomas and (Nana) Foulland are very good players and then their point guard (Stephen) Brown averages 15 points. All three of them are 1,000-point scorers. All three of them are phenomenal 3-point shooters. All three of them have played in, have started 300-plus games so it's a very experienced team with probably eight of their nine guys can shoot 3s. Center is a guy that's also pretty good defensively and I think it's a team that, I look at them, they're as good or better than Middle Tennessee, but similar except they're bigger. Their bigger guys can shoot it. So as far as we go, we're all healthy, no issues there, and we had a great practice yesterday and hopefully we'll have another good one today, practice tomorrow and then we're taking off. Questions?

 

 

On who Bucknell's style of play most closely compares to...
You know, it's kind of unique. I can explain it to a couple of them, I can use Middle Tennessee because of the number of guys that can shoot the ball, but most of our players weren't here for that so I don't use that. I just talk to them about, you know, when they got beat by two by Maryland, that's when Maryland had the forward, he was still playing. They played awfully well. I mean, they had them down 50 to 35 at halftime and it looked worse than that. So I really have looked at those two games because the unique part of this team is they don't really change much. They don't run a ton of things offensively. Their fast break is very good. Their 3-point shooting is beyond, beyond, beyond range. A couple guys that shoot it like that kid from Wisconsin, where he's going to shoot it any place on the floor and that is probably the toughest thing right now. Jaren (Jackson Jr.) will have as tough of a matchup as any, going against Thomas who's a senior, who's played a lot, and 6-7, 6-8. He can beat you off the dribble and he can beat you in the post and he can beat you with a 3, and he can beat you with a long 3. They run a unique fast break that they trail a guy, but where we trail a guy to the 3-point line, they trail a guy about five feet behind the 3-point line and he just catches and shoots it. So it's going to be some different adjustments for us in that respect.

On moving Miles Bridges to the four and Jaren Jackson Jr. to the five...
Yeah, we can do that. We can do that, but this team is pretty physical inside. I think what we are looking to get back to a little bit more is... Nick (Ward) has had a great four, five days. Maybe the best since he's been here. We've got to establish him in that low post. I think he got frustrated, I think we got a little frustrated when he was getting doubled. He may get doubled, now he's been better the last two weeks at dealing with it, but I think he's comfortable now. We've worked on it every single day, so when he gets doubled we can play out of it. But, you know, there's no question that that double-teaming affected his offense and his defense, and then we'd pull him out. You know, we can play Jaren at the three on some things, Miles at the four, even keeping the same lineup in there. I think our size and offensive rebounding would be one of our strengths against them. But, you know, we're not going to make wholesale changes but we can make some of those adjustments, yeah.

On assessing Miles' mental and physical game with the season coming down the stretch...
Well, I think everybody is a little mentally better. I think the break was good for us. You know, I think we've wrapped our arms around all the things that we've gone through this year. We've spent a lot of time last week talking about a lot of things. So I think he's mentally in a great position. I think he's, you know as we keep saying to him all year long, just be more aggressive. He's got to be more aggressive. But, you know, it's hard to argue his numbers to a certain extent and yet, I've made no bones about it that I want him to be more aggressive and that's kind of what we've worked on. I think he's a little better now at shuffle dribbling into that post and making some plays and burying some people. Hopefully we'll do a little bit more of that, too. But Miles is in a good position with his head. I think you get to this time of year and you know, everybody gets excited about playing, but everybody also, you know like our seniors, you start thinking the end is near and so you got to deal with all those things. I think in Miles' case, who knows when the end will be, but I think he's handled everything pretty well, I really do.

On how different it will be this year with more guys having tournament experience...
Well, it's funny, I think it'll help. I do think it'll help. You know, I think last year, we were playing very desperate because you know, some had us in the tournament, some said we had to win a game, who knows after looking at how this weekend went and how everything went, who knows what it takes or what it doesn't take to get into the tournament. But I thought we played against Miami very desperately and I think we played pretty well against Kansas most of that game. Is that going to help us a little bit? Yeah, you know, but this team here, those guys have all played in this tournament. Last year, they played West Virginia to a six-point game. This is as experienced of a team as we'll play. They're more like Purdue, except they've got more depth than Purdue. So I think anytime you get some tournament experience it's better than it was. You know, now we're starting to play Xavier (Tillman) a little bit more and he doesn't have any so we got the two freshman, we got the four sophomores. With (Matt) McQuaid and Kenny (Goins), we need those two guys and they've got some experience but as we know the year before when they were hurt and had an average year. Experience-wise, they're probably better than we are. I'm hoping though that the experience we got last year will really help us.

On if there's no more room for error...
I don't think there's been a lot of room for error. It's funny that, I mean I guess I have had to defend them, not from you guys, from maybe the general public. That we act like... Here's Carolina, what are they a 2 or 3-seed? A 2-seed with 10 losses and it's almost like nobody thinks anything of it. We've given a lot of credit to different conferences and I think we've done a very poor job in our league. I say this, I blame our coaches, including myself, I blame our office a little bit. We have been dealt with some cards that weren't good, but we also, we have four teams in the top 17, three in the top 10 and that makes for a pretty good conference. For Nebraska not to get in, you know, because a shot against Kansas went in at the buzzer or not, that has hurt all of us. And what it does and where I'm getting to on this question, is we've kind of defended how we've been all year.

We've played, maybe not the toughest schedule in the Big Ten, but we've played through the toughest situations as any team in the Big Ten. So if we talked about our team and playing with emotion and also with energy and also with things on their plate, this team has done an incredible job and will never get the credit they deserve because it's an immeasurable on what they've done. I think they've, you know, hey, we played okay against Michigan the first half. We didn't play as good the second half but shots didn't fall. If a couple shots fall, we make a layup, they don't bank in a 3, is it a different game and are you feeling different? Probably. And so I can't worry about that. I'm disappointed in some of our fans because I think they've gone after our guys. Like we are 29-4 and I'm not going to apologize for being 29-4. And like I said, I actually give credit to you guys because that's not been an issue with you guys for the most part. But I think it's so wrong and I think all these other teams are in the same boat, you know everybody... The perfect world isn't here anymore, you know, there's too much noise out there. I told you that about Twitter, five years ago, it's tripled.

So everybody, I mean everybody, has been up and down. From Arizona to Villanova to Duke to Carolina. I mean think having 10 losses and you're still in a 2-seed, that's amazing and I'm not saying not deserving but everybody's going through the same things. So I'd say that the desperation part has to be there, that's what the tournament's all about. If our guys don't have that, that means they're too young to figure it out yet and I don't see that happening. But you've also got to play good and you've got to make shots. At the end of the day, you have to do those two things. As average as we were the second half defensively for that game, we were still pretty good. But offensively, I didn't think we made some shots that I think we need to make.

On how he feels about Cassius (Winston) at this point...
That's the other thing you know, Cassius probably had an eight-game stretch where he was as good as any point guard in the Big Ten, maybe in the country; Making shots, making plays, better defensively and he didn't play as well in a game or two. Like I said, I know some pretty big named teams out there that were moving their point guards at the end of the year and putting some other guys at the point. I mean, everybody's got those issues and I think the one thing that I will say as I look at my team once in a while, we're still pretty young and we get caught up in the Duke, Carolina stuff -- Duke, Kentucky, they're still pretty young and have had their own issues. I think Cassius is very important to this team. I mean, anytime you have a quarterback, he's important to a team. But I think we have a lot of parts and they all have to play well if we're going to make a run. Josh (Langford) has to make shots. We've got to get the ball into Nick better. Miles has got to be a little more aggressive. But hell, they won 29 games and doing it in a pretty good way and the games we lost, it wasn't like we weren't in those games. So I think we'll just keep doing what we're doing, only maybe shoot a little better and maybe turn it over a little less, which we've done a better job of that. I think we forget about the good things we've done. The turnovers have come down a little bit, the free throw shooting's gone up a lot. So those are the things that I think are going to be important in the tournament. We're still pretty good defensively.

On how proud he is of how his team has handled the noise...
Well that's the problem. I sat there a lot of nights and thought about everything that was going on and I kind of tried to be 20 again. I figured that out pretty quickly that I couldn't do that, and neither could you, so I don't know what you're laughing at. You know, I know how things bothered me, I know I dealt with them. I can't imagine how I would've done that at 20, so proud? No matter what happens, I'm going to be proud of this team. Disappointed that things got to the point where they escalated to that level? I am. But, it was, sometimes you have control of things and sometimes you don't, but these guys are going to deserve the respect of every Spartan fan for what they have done and what they're doing, and let's hope they don't catch fire, because if we do, they could put themselves in an elite level by themselves.

On the need to be aggressive and attack the rim...
That's the first thing I said today. We've got to get the ball inside the net more, and he's got to respond, which I, you know, he's had some great days here lately and, you know, I think we've got to get Jaren to ball down there a little bit more. You know, I do think we've settled a few times, although some of those shots we missed in the last game, man, I want Cassius and Jaren taking those all day long. So, that's the catch-22 about it. We're still not taking a million 3s. It's not like they were living and dying with the 3s. I think the key for us is do we defend well enough, that we rebound well enough, that we get our fast break going, and that's where we score some buckets and then in the half-court, we've got to get back in to Nick a little bit more than we have.

On his what he has seen from Xavier Tillman and what his advice is for his first tournament...
Xavier is maybe my most unique kid of all the kids because I didn't expect what I've gotten out of him. What he's, all the things that he's dealt with, he's been unbelievable, including we were thinking about redshirting him and then we didn't. The way he's handled being on the scout team, I think he's realized it's benefitted him a lot. He has that, one of those intangibles. He's got a couple, still pretty intelligent player, one of my top two or three, but he's tougher than nails and that has helped him. Going against Nick every day and Gavin has helped him. I think what he has a little bit is he has the surest hands in America. He understands defense and how to guard things. He's in here watching more film because he's trying to emulate that team he's playing against, and he almost never plays on that other team in practice and yet he picks things up, which is really, really good. And I think he fits in with this team so well. They all have great respect for him and, you know, he's got his family kind of here and guys go over there a lot. They spend time, and I think he has done as good a job as anybody of handling all the things he's had to handle and still perform and getting better each day, and I think he's going to be not a good player, he's going to be a great player and I hope some of that comes this weekend. I think you're going to see a little bit more of X.

On learning from the game against Middle Tennessee State and how every game matters...
I think the second part of your question is more important than the first, because when you're a parent, a coach, a boss and you're telling somebody something, it doesn't have the same impact as a peer telling you it, and that's what I've told our veterans, and yet I don't want to harp on something that happened two years ago other than to learn that this is what happens. Don't believe the 14, 15, 16, if I was a first, No. 1 seed and I'm playing a 16, I mean, we all know what's going to happen sooner or later. It's going to happen, and I think there's the same paranoia, so I don't really look at it that way with this team except to let them know that I kind of stayed more in the present. If you can have Maryland down 15 at halftime at Maryland and have Carolina down early and a close game most of the way, I think that speaks more volumes than even the Middle Tennessee.

I don't think that this team has the ego, although I didn't think the one two years ago did either, but I don't think this team has an ego issue where they're thinking they're better than everybody, so I haven't harped on that. It's been mentioned the first night. That's been mentioned about a lot of teams in a lot of the brackets. For me, I just told them this is what you've got to look out for. But I've kind of stuck to the present and looked at (Bucknell's) 20, I think they're 20-2 in the last 22 games. They won their tournament by 30 and 31 points. I don't care who you are. It's hard to do that in a conference tournament. So, when I say this team has got 3,000-point scorers and is really good, they're really good. I mean that.

On if the pressure for success has been a burden...
You know, Bob, it probably did. I mean, when people are disappointed in 29 wins, I'm sure it probably did. But, you said something that I don't want to harbor on and I'm not going to harbor on it, but or belabor it, but we aren't forgetting the other stuff. And it's so hard for me to balance that, you know? I've said that in a couple of those games early in the middle of January or into January, I said, you know, I didn't think we were playing as well. Well was it because of this? Or because of this? Or because of this? That's been the biggest challenge for me. But I think that's why I want to make sure our fans that matter to me appreciate what they've done and understand that they've done something pretty special, and you know what? If we don't get to a Final Four or that ultimate goal, it's going to be disappointing to me. It'll be disappointing to them. But, it's not going to define me and it's not going to define them. It might in some people's eyes, but it won't in mine.

This team has done a lot of things and they've given me, I can't imagine as Hondo kind of said it earlier, I can't imagine not having this kind of team to go through what we've gone through. It's -- they saved me, and I appreciate that, but if I could answer that, I'd say I think, you know, a little bit of that pressure has probably weighed on them, but it's just hard to differentiate because the other one's been bigger in ways. And I don't know how to put the two together, so hopefully we're moving on the best we can from the other, and we're trying to focus in on what we've got to focus in on and if there was ever a time when a week off might've done a team good, maybe it was us to just kind of spend some time together, talk about it and refocus in on what we've got to do and what we've got to accomplish and try to put all the distractions away, and that's kind of what we've done. I feel good about it. I feel like it was a good week for us even though I'm a little nervous about the rust, but I'm also feeling good about what we did.

On the experts picking Michigan State to go all the way...
God, I hope they're right, you know? I don't know how they would know, because they're not here every day or they're not at other places every day, but I think, you know, everybody has an opinion and everybody, you know, I think for a lot of those guys, they've watched a lot of games. And they probably didn't, you know, necessarily poll all the fan bases because I think the fan bases see the warts, but I think as they go around the country they see everybody's warts and I think it's a privilege. I don't look at that as more pressure, but when I say I'm concerned with the first game, we're going to win the weekend because that's what we do here, but you can't win the weekend unless you win the first game and I'm not trying to make it bigger than it is. If you saw them on film, you'd say wow, is that a 14-seed team? And so I'm trying to just say thanks to the guys that think that much of us, and not a burden, and I don't think anybody's going to be shooting for us any differently. It shouldn't motivate Bucknell, I mean, we've been in the top two, three, four, five in the country the whole year, so I don't worry about that I just worry about playing up to our expectations and if they want to get credit, playing up to their expectations.

On putting all the team's improvements together...
Yeah, that's probably the million dollar question. Can we do everything? Can we get a couple guys shooting it well at the same time? The free throw shooting was one other one that we made significant improvement over the summer compared to where we were, so what I talked to our guys about and what I did, I went to San Antonio the other night on a recruiting trip and I looked at about eight films on the way down and back and I kind of looked at us in the beginning of the year, the middle of the year, the end of the year and what I've figured out is there's been times that we've played really, really well, and so I try to tell them, we don't have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to, you know, figure out what got us doing this well, what got us doing this well.

Ball movement was one. A little more aggressiveness on defense was one. Our running game. I had my video guy break that down and show these different times in the North Carolina game, maybe the game against Notre Dame and maybe the game against Maryland in the middle of the year and Indiana, and then you know, some games late and try to look at, you know, the differences and so maybe some of it is over the stress and worrying about the pressures of things and so we tried to talk about that. Like I said, I had a great week with them, just spending time going over film and looking at different things and that'll be the million dollar question. You know, can we get them to do all those things consistently, but some years you go in saying we have to do this better than we've ever done it. I look at it as, we've already done this. Each part of those, we've done well. We had a six turnover game. We had an eight turnover game. We've done that well. We've had a game where we've shot, I mean, I think we were, I don't know where we are now, but we were number one, or we were the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiencies. I'm not sure that ever happened here. You know, the shot blocking is something that's been special. All those little things.

What I don't think we've done a good enough job is, and I don't know, what did we end up rebound-wise in the country? Top two? Top two in the country and I don't think we're doing that as well as we need to do it, find a way to get Jaren more involved in that. Nick's done a good job. I think even Miles can get more involved in that, but we're still number two in the country and I'm complaining about that. I sound like a fan, but I just honestly believe that the good thing I've got going in the tournament is I don't have to come up with something that we've never done before. I just have to remember what we did, how we did it and make sure we do it again.

On if it's hard to focus on one game at time when expectations are high...
You know, I don't think so. I think, I preach a lot during the season about one-and-done time, you know, and when you go the tournament in Portland, you know, I said we have to use this tournament that if you don't win, at the end of the year when we were playing those last two games against Illinois and Wisconsin, I said in a way this is one-and-done time. If we lose, we're not going to win it outright. So I tried to pick and choose little areas like that to put some pressure on these guys to see how they'd handle it and see what they did and really prepare them for what they're going to be in for this week, because you are right, I mean, we are awfully young and inexperienced with the number of guys that are playing the number of minutes and who's been through this tournament.

Yeah, Tum has and Gav has, but they're not playing the minutes they were playing, so with the guys that are playing, for some of them I didn't look back to see how many Cash played in the Miami game for example or you know, how many Nick played. That was the game that he fouled the guy in the first two seconds on the jump ball, so he probably didn't play a lot of minutes in that game. So I think playing-wise in the tournament they're very inexperienced, but I think they've played in enough big games and I think they learned how to win. That's why the PK80 was important to Miles or to me, because you have to learn how to get through three games and not make many mistakes and we did that in the that tournament. We played very well in all three, and so that's what we're trying to recapture.

On if he likes that a 29-4 team is still being nitpicked...
What a real young team, and young and talented, but you're talent level is compared to who? I mean, if you compare it to you know again, if you were picking and you looked at the number one seeds right now, you'd say Xavier, junior-senior, Villanova, junior-senior, Kansas, a lot of junior-seniors, Virginia, a lot of juniors so and some of them more experienced than these guys had, so the only thing I'd say to that, Bob, is that you know, when you're young and inexperienced, you're a little more fragile in what you hear and what you see and how people react, and so I don't want to use the chip. I don't want to go in there and say everybody thinks you're, you know what I would say, not good enough or you got this problem or you got that problem.

You know, I mean, I use Miles because he's easy to use, you know? He has gotten better. His assists are better, his turnovers are better, his defense is better. He's getting guarded different too. I mean, last year nobody knew. You know, you think they knew Miles Bridges, but they didn't really know Miles Bridges and now they prepare a little different but we've also got more players around him, and so for him to average the same amount of points, just about the same amount of rebounds and more assists and better defense, you know, better with the ball. I think he's made progress, but like everybody you want that year to be better better than the first year, and sometimes it's not. I don't think that's all him, I think that's the fact that we have a better team around him.

But it's, this is a team that has wanted to please this community more than any team I think I've had. Now back with Mateen (Cleaves) and them, there wasn't the money ball like it is now, and there wasn't the, you know there was no Twitter, there was no this, there was no that. This team has embraced that stuff. You know when I'm talking to Jack or when I'm talking to you or when I'm talking to just about anybody. I'm never at those money ball games. I'm never around in the summer as far as being with the players at events, and everybody just bragged how much they did. So this community means a lot to them, and that's why the other issues that we've had maybe hits home a little more than some teams when those things don't' matter as much, so yeah, you know, I defend them a little bit because, you know, I just hear people say things that I just have to laugh about, and yet it's not funny. What I've done this year is I always try to put myself back to being 20, and some of that's good and some of it's bad. I mean, I wouldn't want to be 20 again with this deal, I wouldn't have thumbs by the time I was 30. But it's hard to ever put yourself in somebody else's shoes, and it's hard to weigh how things affect people. I'll just say this publicly, this team has done a lot of good things this year and they are a very good team. Once in a while I see their youth and I, you know, that's when I'm hammering on them.

Last week and this week, I told them I'm treating them all like they're juniors and grad students, you know? So we're just trying to crank on it. Yesterday's practice was good. Today's better be better and tomorrow's better the best and then we're leaving for Detroit, so there's really nothing negative. I'm not trying to campaign for people to appreciate this team. I'm just trying to tell you the truth, and some of you have asked good questions about does it affect them? Here would be the best answer: would it affect you? And you don't have to answer it, you just have to think about it. Would it affect you? Would it affect your kid?

And that's why I love this team, because they've helped me get through things and they've given me everything that I want. Would I like them more street tougher? Probably. Would I like them more selfish? Probably. You know, then I start thinking about the things I'm saying probably on, and I'm saying, God, you know, I appreciate that that ball's moving. I'm appreciating that there's 26 assists out of 29 baskets. I'm appreciating the unselfishness and the togetherness. I'm appreciating the way they've handled and given themself to this community and our fan base. So I'm looking forward to going to Detroit and trying to win the weekend and I'm looking forward to doing it with a bunch of guys that I think have the same exact goal and we're going to try to focus in on that and hopefully do well for everybody. Thanks and I'll see you soon.

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