Tom Izzo hasn’t forgotten how to coach. Let’s stop that right here.
Nor is he ready to retire. Or need to retire. Or want to retire.
That we are here, having this conversation, is silly. And a sign of the times, I suppose, that the first bad season in more than two decades can spur this talk.
True, such chatter remains in the minority of Michigan State's fan base. It's also a fragile fan base, still stinging from the final years of Mark Dantonio’s tenure, wondering if this is the beginning of the end for Izzo, too.
Here’s betting it’s not. The circumstances are different. So are the foundations.
Here’s also betting Michigan basketball’s ascension this season under Juwan Howard isn’t helping, either. That’s the tough part of a rivalry. Some years you’ve got to eat dirt. This is especially hard when you aren’t used to its taste.
Tuesday night, you had to eat it again. Watching a team that just isn’t good enough. Or talented enough.
Watching a team fumble around in the dark in hopes of a sliver of light. Making the same mistakes. Missing the same shots. Unable to compete with a middling opponent.
After losing to Purdue, MSU is 4-9 in the Big Ten and 10-9 overall. Five games remain, as of right now. The Spartans will do well to win two of them.
That would leave MSU at .500 for the second time in Izzo’s career, unless the Spartans go on a miracle run in the Big Ten tournament.
It is shocking, really.
And Izzo has owned it. All of it. The uneven rotations. The lack of development. The losses.
He has kicked himself after games for not playing someone as much as he should’ve. Or for playing too many too often.
And while he has lamented the lack of a regular offseason and the unpredictability of COVID-19 as reasons for his inability to figure out his team, he knows everyone in college basketball faced the same challenges. He hasn’t found a way to meet them.
So, it’s on him. He has said that.
Says that after every loss, as he did again Tuesday night in West Lafayette, Ind., where he opened his postgame news conference on Zoom after his Spartans lost to Purdue by saying:
“We are struggling at the point … that’s my fault.”
Specifically, he was talking about the late-game turnovers by forward Joey Hauser, and that he should’ve directed the ball to his most sure-handed ball-handlers, Aaron Henry and Joshua Langford. He’s right, that was his fault.
It’s also on him that he must rely on a forward and a shooting guard — who missed almost two years because of injury — instead of a point guard to make decisions when the game gets tight; he is responsible for who is on the roster, he oversees developing the roster.
He knows this.
He sees what you see.
He hasn’t forgotten how to evaluate players and develop them. He just hasn’t figured out this team.
It’s startling, no doubt. Izzo has set a standard. He's nowhere near it.
It’s one season. After 22 consecutive seasons making the NCAA tournament. After three straight seasons winning a share of the Big Ten. After leading his program to the Final Four the last time the tournament was held.
We’re not talking about ancient history here. We’re talking about last year. Less than 12 months ago, when his Spartans took the floor on the final game of the regular season and beat Ohio State to earn a share of the conference title.
All of which makes what has happened this season surreal, hard to process, and explains the frustration surrounding the program.
But wanting Izzo to step aside?
Yes, he hasn’t handled his rotations well. On Tuesday night, for example, freshman big man Mady Sissoko played (relatively) well in the first half but didn’t play in the second. Sophomore Julius Marble played well in the second half, asked for a breather, then sat for six minutes when he should’ve sat for two.
Henry sat for eight minutes Sunday when Iowa blew the game open. Marcus Bingham Jr. got benched after a minute. On and on it goes, especially at the center spot.
As for the point guard spot?
MSU has no great option. A.J. Hoggard may be a solid player one day. He is not ready now. Foster Loyer is a shooting guard trapped in a 5-11, 170-pound body, and Rocket Watts is a scorer who isn’t sure when to score.
His confidence is teetering. So is the entire team. That’s on Izzo, too.
Again, the roster is his doing. That too many players are being asked to do things they either aren’t ready for or aren’t capable of is his doing as well.
Thomas Kithier is a savvy and solid player. He gave MSU important minutes a year ago on a team good enough to win it all.
But he’s not going to tilt the court. And that’s fine, as long as he isn’t asked to.
You might say the same of most of those who play. They have qualities to offer. They just aren’t part of the right mix in the way they were a year ago.
Izzo’s constant lineup tinkering hasn’t helped. Though, again, he has always been a tinkerer. Even his best teams have often needed a month to find a rhythm.
The scattered rotations are easy to rip, and they haven’t worked, but they are happening because of a lack of difference-makers. Izzo had three straight recruiting classes that have yet to produce one, other than Henry, and even he is best orbiting around a brighter light, as he did a year ago.
This isn’t to say Sissoko or sophomore forward Malik Hall or Hauser — if you consider the transfer part of the 2019 class — or even Hoggard won’t become difference-makers. All have shown nice potential, at least in moments. Add a stellar incoming freshmen class and MSU should rebound fine next fall.
Izzo's resume suggests it, in his record, in his ability to develop players, in his willingness to adapt. Sure, there are staples — rebounding, man-to-man, gap-heavy defense. But he often changes his offense to fit his roster, even if it takes him a while some years.
This year, he hasn’t. No matter how much he has tried.
He deserves criticism for that.
As for him losing it?
“(After) one average year?”
Yeah, exactly. It sounds preposterous.
Because it is.