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Izzo Is Out Of Magic

For the second time in three years, a championship-caliber Spartan team ends its season in the tournament’s first weekend, and Tom Izzo’s on-court legacy should begin to shift accordingly.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Michigan State Spartans vs Syracuse Orange
Nice game plan, Coach
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a fun cliche to say “coaches don’t make the plays” when some particular aspect of a team’s performance is extremely bad, to the point where it’s readily identifiable as the reason for a loss.

Hell, in the first half of MSU’s Round of 32 faceplant against probably the worst Syracuse team to ever limp into the tournament, I said those things myself. No, MSU did not look comfortable against Syracuse’s zone, which was the same zone they’ve played for decades. And they shot so, so badly, but they were good looks, sooner or later they were destined to start falling.

But if you’re reading this article, you already know they didn’t. MSU finished a total of 17/66 from the field, good for less than 26%. Many of those shots were the ones invited by the zone: semi-contested threes, often taken at the very end of the shot clock. On those shots, MSU was a disastrous 8/37. Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid both went 1/7. Cassius Winston was 3/11. Miles Bridges, who Tom Izzo has spent most of the season urging to be more selfish and ball-dominant, was 3/12.

And as they continued to fire away in vain as the sand slithered through the hourglass, Izzo kept Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. parked on the bench for almost the entire second half. This, after Syracuse’s entire front line was in bad foul trouble from midway through the first half.

Instead of putting the eternal-limbed Jackson or the explosive Bridges in the middle of the zone, Izzo tabbed Ben Carter, who shattered his previous season high in minutes played with 23. Jackson, the former top-ten recruit and presumed top-ten NBA pick, played a total of 15 minutes. Ward and Jackson’s exile presumably stemmed in part from some first-half ineffectiveness, when they repeatedly turned it over attempting to negotiate the high post-baseline exchange. From the middle, Carter did some good passing, albeit to guys who generally looked totally unprepared for what he was dishing. He took one midrange jumper, and hit that. He later took another, missed it, and looked afraid to shoot from then on out.

Putting Ben Carter in such a critical position, for so long, in a game with these stakes, when I would guess he probably hadn’t played a total of 23 minutes this season before today, is coaching malfeasance of the first order. It’s unfair to Carter, who repeatedly passed on makeable shots from inside the free throw line, and it’s unfair to Jackson, who entrusted his one collegiate year to Izzo and was consistently mismanaged through this entire season, but today in particular.

If any of MSU’s primary offensive options had had even a bad day instead of being terrible across the board, I’m probably not writing this article. It’s survive and advance season after all, and with the margin being what it settled at, one more made shot of 49 misses would have made a world of difference. So if a finger needs to be pointed at any of the teenagers who folded under pressure, it might be fair in this instance.

But the lion’s share of the massive blame to be distributed after another in a lengthening string of infuriating high-leverage losses over the last few years has to settle on the guy in the paisley tie. There’s not much commonality between this team and the ‘16 outfit that famously exited in the first round other than Izzo and a couple of seniors who barely played today.

For a team with two probable lottery picks and solid supporting talent to settle for a regular season conference title, coupled with unceremonious and early exits from both the conference and national tournaments, is inexcusable for the Hall of Fame coach responsible for guiding it.

This isn’t a call for Izzo’s job, if only because any school firing a coach of his resume for anything short of, say, one of the half-dozen investigations into the program pinning him with the various misdeeds he’s been accused of would find it impossible to get a decent replacement to pick up the phone.

It’s just an acknowledgment of something that felt like an uncomfortable worst-case scenario two years ago but, after this failure, feels far more certain.

Izzo is never going to win another national title at Michigan State.

There is therefore a choice to be made. After all, the year before the MTSU disaster, the reason for the optimism that surrounded that ultimately doomed campaign, was the most recent of Izzo’s Final Four runs. Even with two bitter disappointments now festering atop the pile of March memories, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to be content with consistently battling for conference titles, hoping that Izzo rediscovers how make the pieces fit better than he did this year in time for a deep enough March run to hang something in the rafters worth celebrating. If Izzo was ever going to be Wooden or Krzyzewski, we would have seen the second one a long time ago; lots of great coaches never get a single ‘ship.

Or, cross one’s arms, declare it not good enough, that Izzo is over the hill, that Izzo should be on the hot seat or, in the changeup of hottaeks, blandly express hope that he’ll retire in the near future so MSU can, like, find the next Coach K wandering the sideline at a mid-major. Because if it now seems as though Izzo can only take less talented, less appreciated teams deep into the tournament, it has been clear for a long time that those teams are ultimately incapable of slaying the ‘15 Dukes and ‘09 North Carolinas that await at the end of the road. And the tactical adjustment he made to acquire higher-grade talent to match the truly elite programs has resulted in teams that don’t look comfortable playing for him, that clearly feel the pressure of high expectations and do not respond well to it.

Even stewing in the immediate, noxious misery plumes of today’s implosion, I’m more inclined to let Izzo play this out. He reacted to the ‘16 disaster by immediately gathering enough talent to be right back in the same high-expectation position two years later.

Now, he’s not only faced with a comparable on-court meltdown, but the calling into doubt of his entire legacy through the sundry off-court allegations against him and his program. Izzo is at his best when he’s been written off. Rebounding from where he is now, in every arena, would take his greatest effort, and he no longer gets nor deserves the benefit of the doubt on any of it. But what other choice do fans of this program really have?