EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) – A Brink’s truck was backed up near Tom Izzo’s office at Michigan State on Monday morning.
No, it wasn’t sent by Dan Gilbert.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers owner, who gave Izzo a chance to double what he’s making this season, did try to encourage the beleaguered coach of his alma mater on Monday.
“Hang in there,” Izzo said Gilbert wrote in a text message.
Izzo said he responded in kind to Gilbert, whose team lost its NBA-record 25th straight game Monday night at Dallas.
“I feel sorry for Cleveland, for Dan,” Izzo said. “I feel sorry for our fans and for us right now.”
The Spartans have lost two straight – by 20-plus points for the first time since Izzo’s debut season as head coach – and five of six to fall out of The Associated Press poll after being ranked No. 2 in the preseason.
Izzo said “a perfect storm” of problems have jeopardized the program’s chances of extending its NCAA tournament streak to 14 years, though he’s not ready to concede anything.
“We ain’t done yet,” he said.
Izzo had a chance to finish his career at Michigan State and start one in the NBA last summer when Gilbert wooed him with an offer to make about $6 million a season.
He chose to stay – and get paid about half – and doesn’t regret it despite being mired in a miserable season.
“I’m happy with the decision I made,” Izzo said. “There’s probably some people that aren’t right now.”
Izzo’s self-deprecating humor aside, it’s no joke that the Spartans might finish the year in the NIT just as his first two teams did in 1996 and 1997.
Michigan State (13-10, 5-6 Big Ten) hosts Penn State (12-10, 5-6) on Thursday night.
After getting the weekend off, the Spartans play on the road against Ohio State and close the regular season with home games against Illinois, Purdue and Iowa along with matchups at Minnesota and Michigan.
Izzo has tried to avoid directly addressing the team’s bleak NCAA tournament picture with his players.
“You fight as a coach whether you want to put pressure on them, or take it off,” Izzo said. “But there does come a point in time, not talking about it doesn’t help because they’re not idiots. They see it and hear it. Everybody knows roughly what you have to do.
“The pressure of the streak – that’s there – but there have been pressures to get to Final Fours that we’ve overcome.”
The Spartans probably have to win at least four of their last seven games in the regular season and another game or two in the Big Ten tournament to earn an NCAA tournament bid.
“I don’t hate coaching these guys, but it’s been a hard year because of all we’ve been through,” Izzo said. “It has been a perfect storm.”
It started during the last NCAA tournament when star guard Kalin Lucas ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon, leading to the first of several surgeries during the offseason that set back the development of key players.
Chris Allen, one of the team’s best defenders and shooters, wasn’t welcomed back for his senior season and junior Korie Lucious, who filled in well for Lucas last year, was kicked off the team two weeks ago.
Senior small forward Durrell Summers, whose strong play lifted the team to the last Final Four, is simply struggling to live up to expectations.
Sophomore center Derrick Nix got into the best shape of his life last summer, then almost ate his way off the team in another setback that hurt the team on the court and its fragile morale off it.
The improved Big Ten has also led to Michigan State’s woes with teams finding ways to make shots and grab rebounds against a program that used to pride itself on defense and rebounding.
Izzo put together a grueling non-conference schedule, which Sagarin rates as the nation’s toughest, that backfired this season because it didn’t let his banged-up team gain confidence.
“He’s not used to losing, but neither are any of us,” forward Draymond Green said Sunday after losing 82-56 at Wisconsin. “We just have to get our winning ways back.”
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