Tom Izzo is the “best coach in modern NCAA Tournament history — by far,” according to data compiled by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com.
According to the data, Izzo’s Michigan State teams are now 46-16 in the NCAA Tournament and have won 15 more games than expected based on seeds. This year is no exception as Izzo has led the Spartans to his seventh Final Four despite entering the tournament as a No. 7 seed.
Part of Izzo’s success is undoubtedly great coaching. But some of the overachievement is also clearly the result of underachievement in the regular season. After all, this year’s Michigan State team is clearly better than 25th-28th in the country as suggested by their 11 losses and tournament seeding.
So why does Michigan State not do enough in the regular season to earn a high seed?
At least some of it is by design, as ESPN’s article by Dana O’Neil explains, as Izzo recognises how little the regular season really matters and uses it as a sort of laboratory experiment for the sole purpose of gearing up for the NCAA Tournament.
Consider these numbers for the Spartans since their loss to Duke in the second game of the season (via O’Neil):
- Izzo used eight different starting lineups during the 36-game stretch, including one stretch of five games that had five different starting lineups.
- 10 players have started a game for Michigan State this season.
- 1 player (Denzel Valentine) has started every game this season.
“The sense of urgency is with me all year long,” Izzo told O’Neil. “But I get to make some mistakes.”
In other words, losing in the regular season is ok as long as you have a long-term plan. It’s ok to look like a contender on the road in an overtime loss to Notre Dame and then two weeks later lose at home to Texas Southern. The final scores of games in December are nearly meaningless in college basketball.
Izzo gets to make mistakes because all that matters is that Michigan State wins enough games to get into the tourney.
Izzo doesn’t need to go 34-0 in the regular season because championships are won in March and April.
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