By: Will Burchfield

Well before Tom Izzo led Michigan State to the national title in 2000, a tournament run that saw the Spartans dispatch Syracuse in the Sweet 16, Jim Boeheim knew Izzo was going to vault a storied basketball program to even greater heights.

“I knew when he was an assistant coach,” Boeheim, 73, said on Saturday, with Syracuse and Michigan State prepared to face off in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

Before assuming his head coaching position in 1995, Izzo, now 63, served under Jud Heathcote for 13 years as an assistant. Before that he was an assistant coach for four years at Northern Michigan.

“I knew Tom when he was an assistant coach. He knew the game. He was a hard-charging guy. I knew when he took over Michigan State he’d do a great job,” said Boeheim. “I loved Jud Heathcote. Jud was a great coach, but he wasn’t the kind of recruiter that Tom would be and has become. But there was never any doubt that he’d be a great coach.”

It’s been mostly smooth sailing for Izzo during his 23-year tenure as head coach, but 2018 has presented rough waters. In January, ESPN published a report accusing the MSU basketball program of systemic sexual assault and violence against women; Izzo was portrayed as sweeping such allegations under the rug.

Later in the year, Miles Bridges was named in the FBI probe into corruption in college basketball. He was subsequently cleared.

All of this has shined a spotlight on Izzo, and he hasn’t always handled the heat well. If some of Izzo’s public shine has worn off, Boeheim is one person who still firmly believes in the values of Michigan State’s head coach.

“He’s absolutely one of the great coaches we’ve ever had. And I think he’s even better off the court. He’s one of the nicest people I know,” Boeheim said. “I’ve known him, I’ve been on the board (of USA Basketball) with him, I’ve been around him for probably close to 40 years now, from when he was an assistant. There’s no guy that has better character that you would want to be your head coach more than Tom Izzo.

“I’ve seen countless situations where I’ve been around him where he always does the right thing, 100 percent of the time. Tom Izzo would never do the wrong thing. And anybody that thinks other than that, they don’t know Tom Izzo. I know him.”

In 2015 Boeheim was in a similar spot to the one Izzo is in now. Syracuse was being investigated by the NCAA for a number of alleged violations, and Boeheim’s program was ultimately found guilty of academic misconduct, improper benefits and a failure to enforce the school’s drug policy. Boeheim was suspended nine games and the Orange were forced to vacate over 100 wins, among other punishments.

“I’ve been involved in stuff — you’re not supposed to say things — but Tom Izzo is not going to do things that aren’t right, 100 percent of the time. On the basketball court, off the basketball court,” Boeheim said. “He’s a great guy. He’s a great leader. And I’m very proud that he’s a friend of mine.”

For a couple hours on Sunday afternoon, the two will put that friendship on hold. Michigan State and Syracuse tip off at 2:40 at Little Caesars Arena.