DETROIT — Tom Izzo was surrounded by coaches and confidants in a conference room at Michigan State’s hotel, trying to figure out how to beat North Carolina for the national title.
Izzo’s three assistant coaches, two video co-ordinators and mentor, Jud Heathcote, joined him for the late-night session that wrapped up between 2:30 and 3 a.m.
“I wanted to be fresh,” Izzo joked Sunday.
What isn’t a joke is how good Izzo-led teams are in the second game of an NCAA tournament week, going 14-2.
“Win the weekend,” centre Goran Suton said. “That’s our motto.”
And Izzo credits the team’s success to the players’ focus and belief in their system.
“I said, ‘You get me through the first game, and I feel good that I can help get you through the second.’ And they’ve kind of had that mentality.”
The Spartans’ two losses second game losses were against North Carolina in the second round two years ago and versus Texas in a 2003 regional final, both games in opponents’ home states.
Izzo’s mastery of winning one-day preparations started in his first NCAA tournament in 1998, when the Spartans opened with Eastern Michigan — led by lightning-quick guard Earl Boykins — then had to get ready for Princeton’s backdoor-cut filled offence.
“We devised a plan where we have these little 20-minute meetings,” Izzo said.
“Even if we get back at 1:30 in the morning from our game, which has happened a few times, we always have a film session so they can go to bed on it.” If top-seeded North Carolina, favoured by 71/2 points tonight, sleeps on the Spartans, it might prove to be a mistake.
Izzo’s .756 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament barely trails those of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.763) and Florida’s Billy Donovan (.759) and puts him just ahead of Williams (.750) among active coaches.
While Michigan State systematically breaks down each of its opponents — analyzing 10 games before every matchup — the Tar Heels simply focus on their systems.
“I’m not trying to belittle any other coach that does a lot,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who prepares for teams much like his mentor, Dean Smith, did. “We always prepared ourselves and weren’t very concerned about other teams. We give our guys a two-page scouting report. I have some good friends in coaching who will give their teams 15 or 20.
“We teach by principles. That’s what I’ve been comfortable with.”
Despite his success, Izzo is rarely comfortable.
He has tried to find comfort in waking up early and staying up late, hoping to outwork his peers.
Even though Izzo is making US$2.8 million a year and has as much job security as any coach in the country, he is just as relentless as he was as a grinding, little-known assistant for Heathcote from 1983-1995.
“That’s what makes this program so good,” video co-ordinator Jordan Ott said. “You respect his work ethic, passion and energy. He’s blue-collar.”