I considered writing this before tonight's game between the two best college basketball teams in the country. It might have felt a little more objective if I had. But, well, that's why I write here and not for a newspaper. Because sometimes, I can't put aside the instincts I have and the prejudices I bring to watching sports. I love the way Tom Izzo does things, and while I won't say I have any personal dislike for John Calipari because I've never met the man and, fandom aside, I do try to keep a level head about such matters. I'll simply point out that in the past, his methods have gotten him into trouble. Maybe he's learned from those mistakes and found a way to line up his recruits within the rules; I have no idea, and regardless of what you think of him, you probably don't either.
Even if Calipari is walking the straight and narrow, there are multiple ways to achieve great things, different paths to the top of the mountain. And when you've been inculcated in the Izzo cult of personality, embracing the long, difficult path, moments like watching tonight's result are immensely gratifying things.
MSU's offseason was, in a lot of ways, wrought with anxiety about the future. Tom Izzo has, in the last couple of years, departed from his habits of restricting his recruiting to the Midwest for the most part and gone after the big fish. Jabari Parker, Tyus Jones, Cliff Alexander, Izzo went all-in on these guys. And thus far, these efforts have come to naught. After literally years of painstakingly building relationships, Izzo has found himself iced out of these recruitments, and in recent weeks voiced his distaste for what is clearly a less-than-pristine recruiting atmosphere. Calipari, meanwhile, needs barely pick up the phone to have the nation's best recruits lined up around the block for a chance to showcase their skills in front of a nightly array of NBA scouts. Izzo demands that his players rebound and play defense before they sniff the floor, and even then, his offensive sets are so complex that I sometimes wonder if they aren't his own worst enemy, chasing away elite players who just want the ball in their hands. Calipari's drive-based offense is more about letting his players do what they do best, a system that potential lottery picks adore.
The storyline coming into tonight's matchup was pretty firmly defined: talent versus experience. Not talent versus younger talent, as though Michigan State doesn't have 2 probable first round picks of their own. And even after the game was over, and age had prevailed over beauty, ESPN's panel of experts couldn't stop gushing about Julius Randle. That's not altogether surprising. Casual fans tuning in are more intrigued by future NBA stars than by program seniors like Keith Appling, who played a stellar game and was probably most centrally responsible for State's victory. And yeah, Randle played a great game. He also had 7 turnovers and failed to block out Brandon Dawson on the putback that gave MSU its final 4-point margin. Yet, as I recall it, the second question asked of Adreian Payne in the postgame interview was how he would advise other teams to guard Randle.
It's easy to understand why ESPN so lauds the high-flying world of the lottery pick recruit, and gushes about the talent Kentucky overflows with. And I'm not going to try to claim that MSU is underappreciated, because I can see the #2 plastered to its logo as easily as anyone can. But Izzo's propensity for doing things the hard way, in a way that demonstrably impairs his access to blue-chip players and forces long development arcs for many of his players, makes the major, visible successes like tonight, over the symbol of temptation and big promises, more satisfying than they would be if Izzo cut the corners that so beg to be cut.
There's sometimes talk in the MSU fanbase about whether Izzo has another championship run left in him. A year or two ago, this talk was very optimistic, because Izzo and MSU remained in the forefront for a number of elite recruits. The thought was that, even if the 2013 team failed to reach the summit, the wave of outstanding talent coming in behind them would give Izzo another immediate swipe at his second title before he rides off into the sunset, probably sometime in the next decade or so.
It may be that Izzo's missing out on the diaper dandies he made a concerted run at has placed an increased sense of urgency on this season, and that's why this early-season game felt so much more important than MSU's early-season tilts with blue blood programs normally do. It's definitely true that, if Izzo misses out this season, the roster next year has a lot more questions than answers. I think the reason this win feels so good is more that the contrast between Izzo and Calipari is so stark. The unfamiliarity of a program that eagerly resets its roster every season demands repudiation. That contrast is noticeable against Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, and other bluebloods too, but not to the same degree. When you're a fan of MSU, and of the way MSU does things under Tom Izzo, taking down Calipari feels like an enormous validation of the way your program operates.
And I don't mean to put too much value in tonight's win. MSU, as a program, is at a point where the whole season is a buildup to March. Losing this game would have been disappointing, but not overly so. I sensed the same perspective from Kentucky fans; the showcase games early in the season are cool and all, but they aren't the ones that get you banners. So Big Blue Nation probably isn't too fussed about taking the #2 team to the brink. And as Izzo said in the postgame, Kentucky will get a lot better over the course of the season- but State will, too. Because they always do. Because that's the way we do things. And if we run into Kentucky again, that will still be the case, and I'll still take Izzo's way every time.