Exclusive: Tom Izzo on seeding, guard play, and keys to a Final Four run

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Seven years ago, Michigan State suffered one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The Spartans, led by All-American guard Denzel Valentine, ran into a red-hot-shooting Middle Tennessee State team and ended up on the wrong end of a 90-81 defeat. It was just the eighth time in tournament history that a No. 15 seed had knocked off a 2-seed.

Fast-forward to the present, and MSU head coach Tom Izzo has his team back in the Big Dance for a 25th consecutive season, the longest such streak among Division I men’s basketball coaches. 

Izzo’s team earned an impressive 72-62 opening-round win over USC on Friday and will take on No. 2 seed Marquette in the Round of 32 on Sunday. The Spartans, who have won six of their last nine games, are a popular upset choice heading into Sunday’s matchup and have even been mentioned as a sneaky Final Four pick by several national media members. 

But Izzo knows what it’s like to be on both ends of the spectrum — he’s been knocked off as a high seed, and he’s made a Final Four as a 7-seed (2015).

“I’ve been to the Final Four as a 1-seed, and I’ve been beaten in the first weekend [as a 2-seed],” Izzo said in an exclusive interview with FOX Sports college basketball reporter John Fanta. “I really don’t think the seeding is as important right now. It’s how you’re playing and what your team is like.”

The Spartans passed their first test against USC by frustrating the Trojans from start to finish with suffocating defense and timely shot-making. Izzo’s team held a USC group that was averaging 72.5 points per contest to just 62 points on 41% shooting from the floor.

“They played well, and I give them credit,” USC senior Drew Peterson said after being held to just 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting. “They played a very solid defense.”

While defense is and always has been a calling card for Izzo’s teams, there was another aspect of Friday’s game that left him feeling hopeful about his team’s chances moving forward.

“Not turning the ball over,” Izzo said. “If we can take care of the ball against Marquette, that will have a lot to do with the outcome of that game.”

The numbers certainly back up Izzo’s claim: The Spartans ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten in turnover margin (-0.97) this season and went 5-5 when committing at least 12 turnovers.

It’s a telling stat for a team that relies heavily on the play of its guards. The trio of A.J. Hoggard, Tyson Walker and Jaden Akins combine to average 37 points per game, which is more than 50% of the Spartans’ scoring offense.

“Guard play is big in the tournament,” Izzo said. “Right now, we have three guards playing at a really high level. They’re a group that plays well together. 

“As my point guard goes, we go. And he [Hoggard] has been really good lately, so hopefully we can go on a little run here.”

Hoggard will be matched up against another elite-level point guard on Sunday, as Marquette’s Tyler Kolek, the Big East Conference Player of the Year, ranks third nationally in assists (7.6 per game).

Containing Kolek and a Marquette offense that averages 80 points per game will be vital for Izzo and the Spartans.

“If we can put that offense and defense together — cause we’ve obviously been really good offensively the last month — then we’ve got a run in us,” said Izzo. “If not, and we don’t want to guard, then we’re probably going home.”

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