From the outside, it looked like a typically dominant Michigan State basketball team. By the end of January, the Spartans were undefeated in the Big Ten, and ranked fifth in the nation. That record hid some problems the public couldn’t see, but Coach Tom Izzo could.
It wasn’t talent. The Spartans returned four starters, including Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas, from a team that had already reached the NCAA finals the previous year. The problem was simpler, but more serious: the players just didn’t care enough about each other.
The coaches did. In January, Izzo, his trainer, his video guy and Dave Pruder, his long-time equipment manager, all lost close relatives. And every time, they were there for each other. In the middle of the season, Izzo drove down with his trainer to South Bend for his father’s funeral. Pruder told me, “We knew we could rely on each other. But the players didn’t.”
The team’s problems came to the surface in February, when the Spartans dropped three straight games, and five spots in the rankings. They were able to right the ship, and grind out five wins in their last six games to earn a share of the Big Ten title – Izzo’s sixth. But they still hadn’t solved their central problem.
“Every team has got to learn to come together,” Pruder told me. “Some seasons, it takes longer than others, and some times it never happens. We kept winning, but something was still wrong. Even when we won the Big Ten title, something didn’t feel right.”
Izzo pushed them, and they pushed right back. He didn’t give in to them, but he didn’t give up on them, either – not a bad description of good parenting. But they just didn’t seem to understand that if you don’t care about each other, you will not play the way you should for each other.
Izzo’s concerns were validated when the Spartans lost to a mediocre Minnesota team in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. The NCAA selection committee punished the Spartans with a fifth-seed, almost unheard of for a Big Ten champion.
This time, it wasn’t Izzo, but the players who sounded the alarms. They held a players-only meeting to clear the air, and underscore what a great opportunity they had, if they could just come together in time to seize it.
Their newfound unity was tested in the second round against Maryland, when their star, Kalin Lucas, went down with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Izzo told his team Lucas was done. “So,” he said, “you’ve got to step it up. You owe it to him.”
They responded by beating Maryland at the buzzer. In the next game, they came from behind to beat Northern Iowa, and they took Tennessee on Sunday by shooting a free throw with 11 seconds left. They were not dominant, but for the first time all season, they were unified.
On their way down to Indianapolis Wednesday, the team bus stopped by Lucas’s apartment, where he’s recovering from his surgery with his mom’s help. He’ll join his teammates Saturday, when they play Butler in the Final Four – Izzo’s sixth in the last 12 years, the most of any coach over that stretch.
This is not Izzo’s best team. Far from it. But it might be his best coaching.
And it’s nice to know, as complicated as the game has gotten, that caring for each other is still the most important thing.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.