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MSU's Izzo usually makes the right moves in March

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo had a tough time pushing the right buttons with some of his players this season. He suspended a couple of them, kicked one out of practice and benched another.

Izzo, though, insisted the difficulties were similar to ones he dealt with during the championship season a decade ago.

"The problems are no different," he said Monday. "When it's all said and done, the solutions will be good."

That will certainly be the case if the fifth-seeded Spartans listen to Izzo and play up to their potential, starting with Friday's first-round matchup against 12th-seeded New Mexico State in Spokane, Wash.

Izzo, after all, has led the Spartans to the Final Four a nation-best five times in the past 11 years. They earned their 13th straight NCAA tournament bid Sunday, a streak that trails just Kansas and Duke among active runs and only Indiana's mark of consistency under Bob Knight among Big Ten teams.

Izzo is 31-11 in the NCAA tournament and his winning percentage is behind just four active coaches: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Florida's Billy Donovan, North Carolina's Roy Williams and Louisville's Rick Pitino.

"It can help some, but as I've said a million times, "Players play the game,"' Izzo said. "It does help some that they know that everybody that has been through this program has had some success in March. That's the plus of the Final Four string."

Izzo, who makes more than $3 million a season, is in his 15th year as Michigan State's head coach and is under contract through 2016. His team made it to the finals last year, losing to North Carolina in Detroit, and is hoping to return to the Final Four in Indianapolis, where it won the school's second national title in 2000.

The Spartans were expected to have a great shot to win it all again this season, ranked No. 2 in October and November, but they were unable to make up for the loss of departing seniors Travis Walton and Goran Suton, and slipped to 13th in the final poll.

Izzo, though, refuses to apologize for the season.

Michigan State repeated as Big Ten champions, sharing the title with Ohio State and Purdue, and won 24 games despite lacking on-the-court leadership provided by Walton or a big man with a jumper like Suton.

"I don't know what will happen these next two games, three games, four games -- or one game -- but I do know it's probably been handled better than you think because we won 24 games in a conference that is pretty good," Izzo said. "It has not been as smooth or as good as I'd like it, but it was a lot better than a lot of real, good programs."

Izzo has blamed himself for some of the off-the-court news this season, regretting how his accessibility and honesty created stories that he thought were overblown at times.

He kicked star Kalin Lucas out of a practice, suspended Chris Allen during the Big Ten tournament and Korie Lucious from a game at Penn State, and has benched Durrell Summers for long stretches.

This is the same coach who sent a message to his favorite player, Mateen Cleaves, by sitting him for a practice and sat Morris Peterson for not playing defense when he was building his program in the late 1990s. He has no second thoughts about those moves or any he made this season.

"I told my team last night that I don't regret one thing that has gone on this year," Izzo said. "Part of it has made me a better coach. I believe in the end, it's going to help us be a better team and program.

"We have the potential to play better and this weekend we'll see if we can reach that potential, but New Mexico State is a dangerous team."

Izzo has been pushing his program to join the elite group of teams in college basketball and it is debatable whether he has already reached his goal.

Another national championship would definitely do it.

That would give Izzo two titles, trailing just John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Knight and Krzyzewski on the list of coaches with multiple titles. Michigan State would join UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas are the only programs with at least three championships.

"I think we still have a chance," Izzo said. "If I didn't think so, I would probably tell you."