By: Will Burchfield
Tom Izzo raised some eyebrows on Tuesday when he called out a segment of Michigan State’s fanbase for not appreciating his team’s historic regular season. The Spartans’ 28 regular season wins set a program record.
“I’m disappointed in some of our fans because I think they’ve gone after our players. We’re 29-4, and I’m not going to apologize for being 29-4,” Izzo told reporters.
Any dissatisfaction within the fanbase stems from the fact the Spartans finished 2-4 against top-25 teams and lost twice to Michigan, including in the semifinals of the Big 10 Tournament. And while Michigan State went 16-2 in conference play, very few of its wins came in convincing fashion.
Izzo understands this perspective, to an extent.
“I think anytime you lose to your rival, especially when you end your year that way, that leads people to think one way,” he told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket.
He also feels national critics underestimate the challenges the Spartans have overcome, from a compressed conference schedule to a whirlwind of off-court controversies.
“As far as the people nationally, we had a weird part of our conference this year, there were so many bizarre things that happened. The crunch in the schedule makes it difficult, we went through some things here that made it difficult,” Izzo said. “Everybody says, ‘Well, you only beat Wisconsin by three.’ Well, Wisconsin beat Purdue, you know? ‘You were down to Northwestern.’ Northwestern beat Michigan, you know? It’s really funny.”
Michigan State’s lack of quality wins is a major reason why it enters the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed, despite owning one of the best records in the country. The Spartans open play Friday night versus Bucknell.
“The only thing I know is, we lost — now as we look at it — to the No. (9) team in the country (Duke), the No. 7 team in the country (Michigan) and the No. 17 team in the country (Ohio State),” Izzo said. “Usually when you go through the NCAA, when they look at things, they always put on the bottom: Bad losses. Well, there’s not even an average loss for us. Now we’re at the point, I guess in my career, where we didn’t win by enough. And if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”
Clouds have lingered over the Spartans for much of 2018. Early in the year, ESPN published a report accusing the basketball program of systemic sexual assault and violence against women. Fair or not, this was tied in with the Larry Nassar case. Later in the year, Miles Bridges was named in the FBI probe into corruption in college basketball. (He was later cleared.) Questions and rumors have swirled.
“But trust me when I say, circumstances weren’t just the outside circumstances that we dealt with here,” Izzo said. “They were also the crunched schedule. … I don’t know if anybody else played seven of their last 11 on the road. There were some reasons why we were maybe a little tired down the stretch, and yet in saying that, we won some pretty good games. I mean, at Wisconsin’s not an easy win for 90 percent — 99 percent — of teams. At Indiana. Those are tough places to play.”
Most Michigan State fans seem to agree the bar for success this season is a national championship, maybe an appearance in the Final Four. There’s too much talent on the roster to accept anything less. The Spartans’ quest for validation begins Friday night in downtown Detroit. If the local support will be fervent, so will the scrutiny.