EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Izzo hopes he has not changed much since succeeding Jud Heathcote at Michigan State nearly 20 years ago.
The national championship coach with six Final Four appearances acknowledged there’s one way he’s different for sure.
“Back 15 years ago, I wanted to prove everybody wrong,” Izzo said Tuesday. “Now I kind of look at it the other way. I’d like to prove everybody right. And I’m more embracing that than I am panicking over it.”
The fourth-seeded Spartans are slightly favored to beat top-seeded Virginia on Friday night and are a popular pick to win three more games for the school’s third national title.
“The best team who plays the best is going to win,” Izzo said. “And, that’s what we’ve got to do, no matter who’s the favorite, who’s the underdog, where the bull’s-eye is, who’s picking you to win.
“I guess the only thing is I don’t mind letting down alums, but man, the President, I don’t want to let him down. That’s a little bigger.”
President Barack Obama is among the many people who have picked Michigan State to win it all.
If Izzo can guide the Spartans to a second national title, NBA teams might make another run at hiring him.
The Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers are among the franchises who have wanted him to make the leap to the league in the past, and USA Today has reported Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores is “expected to go after,” Izzo.
“I swear to you, I have not talked to one soul from the Pistons,” Izzo said after Tuesday’s practice.
Izzo said he has never met or talked to Gores, a Michigan State graduate.
“That’s the funny thing, somebody said a month ago that they heard we talked on the phone,” Izzo said. “I got a call about that.”
NBA teams, and some colleges, have wanted to woo Izzo away from the place he has called home since 1983 — when Heathcote hired him as a part-time assistant — because he has won a lot, especially when it matters most.
Michigan State is in the round of 16 for the sixth time in the last seven years — the only school to pull off that feat — and for the 12th time in 17 years under Izzo.
The native of Iron Mountain has won 41 NCAA Tournament games, a total that trails just four active coaches: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett was an assistant for his father, Dick Bennett, at Wisconsin 14 years ago when the Spartans beat the Badgers in the Final Four and went on to defeat Florida for the national championship.
“Truly one of the finest teams I’ve seen, individual talent, but team collective in terms of toughness and complete on both ends,” Tony Bennett recalled.
“Just a war and it was great to play in the Final Four, but it was hard to come by buckets in that game. I can remember a lot of people thought it wasn’t the prettiest game, and maybe there’s some truth in that, but it was so hard to get looks.”
Izzo started sending four players after offensive rebounds early in his head-coaching career because getting to a missed shot to attempt another field goal was his best offense. He also has pressed his teams to play physical, man-to-man defense as soon as opponents cross halfcourt.
Those principles have stayed with him just as his relentless work ethic has over the years.
“In so many ways, he hasn’t changed,” Michigan State athletic director and former roommate Mark Hollis said. “He has always had an attention to detail that served him well and he hasn’t lost that.”