Is Michigan State in permanent decline?
Maybe this is just what Tom Izzo's program is now
Last April, my former colleagues at The Athletic produced the latest edition of a fun offseason feature: The coaches’ draft.
A few years back, five of us selected coaches and committed to a years-long contest over whose “team” performed better, with a set number of points for conference titles and deep tournament runs. Four years in, we decided to spice things up a bit, giving everybody the option to redraft two spots. Shout out to Brian Hamilton, whose team of five coaches featured three dudes who weren’t even coaching anymore. Jay Wright was a real blow. A partial redraft was only fair.
I also used both changes. The first was Nate Oats for Dana Altman, one hypermodern coach on the enticing upside of his career swapped in for a guy who couldn’t get a tune out of Kel’El Ware. No brainer. The second proved more controversial: I added Shaka Smart, and I dropped Tom Izzo.
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I have to admit: This did not feel all that controversial to me. After all, Izzo was 68, nudging ever closer to retirement, getting slightly grumpier by the month. How much longer would he keep doing this? I didn’t want a Hamiltonian empty roster slot. Smart, meanwhile, was 46, had found his home at Marquette, reinvented his entire concept of offense to an industry-leading standard, and put a brilliant 2022-23 team on the floor.
Colleagues were surprised, which caught me off guard; when we published, commenters were especially displeased. Izzo was going to have a top five team coming back, or so everyone said. Izzo had also just knocked Smart out of the NCAA Tournament. Izzo was also an overtime of Markquis Nowell brilliance from yet another Elite Eight trip. Izzo was Izzo. Do you really want to write that guy off? For a coach who hasn’t gone to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2011 VCU?
But the rationale felt pretty straightforward: This Michigan State was not the old Michigan State. It was unclear whether Izzo would ever get that Michigan State back.
After a 4-5 start to the 2023-24 season— the worst start to a campaign by a preseason top five team in the past 40 years — it is even more unclear now.