The Big Green Machine: In Praise of Tom Izzo and the Steadiest Program in America

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 11th, 2015

If asked to list the best programs in recent college basketball history, most people would start with Duke and Kentucky, then move on to schools like North Carolina, Connecticut and Kansas. That quintet is a fine place to start. But how far down that list is Michigan State? At what point do Tom Izzo‘s Spartans find their way into that elite tier? Perhaps the now 15 full seasons since Michigan State last won the national championship contributes to the problem. Or maybe the issue is one of consistency rather than dominance. To that possible point, Michigan State finds itself atop the AP Poll this week for only the second time in the last 15 years.

Tom Izzo

Tom Izzo has had a lot to smile about this season. (Getty)

In those 15 seasons, Izzo’s teams have been as steady and as impressive as nearly any other program in the nation. The program’s five Final Four appearances is one more than Duke, Kentucky and Connecticut over the same span. It’s two more than UNC and Kansas. What’s more, Michigan State has been included in the AP Poll’s top 15 at some point in all but one season since 2000. More of these impressive achievements could be listed, but they don’t truly tell the story until placed into proper context. And that context is that Michigan State has achieved all of these things without dominating the all-important recruiting scene.’s team recruiting rankings extend back to 2007, and in those years Izzo’s classes have only cracked the top 10 twice (ninth in 2012; 10th in 2010), with an average ranking of 22nd. And that’s an estimated average, since Michigan State twice failed to make those rankings (outside the top 40 in 2013 and outside the top 25 in 2009).

Of course, much of Sparty’s success can be pinned on its head coach’s demonstrated ability to develop his players. Given that truth, you’d expect that many Spartans would leave East Lansing for success at the next level even if they didn’t arrive in East Lansing with significant hype. That’s somewhat true (see: Zach Randolph and Draymond Green), but Michigan State since 2001 has only put five players into the first round of the NBA Draft, only one of whom was a lottery pick (Jason Richardson). To sum it all up, Izzo has spent the last decade bringing in second-tier recruiting classes consisting of players who typically do not have extraordinary professional-level talent, yet still consistently competes and wins at the highest level of college basketball.

Denzel Valentine Stole The Champion's Classic Show Tuesday Night (Photo: Spartan Avenue)

Led by the versatile Denzel Valentine, the Spartans will be right in the national championship mix. (Spartan Avenue)

This year’s team exemplifies the Izzo phenomenon as good as any. The current Spartans are led in nearly every possible way by senior guard Denzel Valentine. He came to campus without hype or fanfare ( ranked him as the 98th best prospect in his class) but has over three seasons developed into what we see now — a solid front-runner in the National Player of the Year race. He’s scoring nearly 20 points per contest while grabbing almost nine rebounds per game, and yet neither of those numbers tells the most important story. Rather, as his usage rate has increased  — from 24.2 percent last year to 28.9 percent now — so too has his efficiency. He sports a top-100 offensive rating (130.6) and leads the nation in assist rate (47.9%). This means that if Valentine is on the floor and one of his teammates scores, there’s essentially a 50-50 chance that he assisted on the bucket. For a ball-dominant point guard, that kind of ratio would be very good. For a point-forward, or whatever Denzel Valentine is, it’s simply remarkable.

The team surrounding Valentine is as complete as many of the other teams we’ve grown used to seeing at Michigan State. There are senior contributors (Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello), improving young players (Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn), promising freshman role players (Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid), and a capable transfer in Eron Harris. Another basketball season, another year of Izzo’s machine rolling on. Best of all, in a year that appears to be dominated by parity without a truly elite team (or two), Sparty has as good a shot as any team to cut down the nets in Houston. It would be Michigan State and the Big Ten’s first championship since 2000. Perhaps then the Spartans’ program would be on the tip of everyone’s tongue when they start to name the nation’s elite programs. It would certainly be about time.

Shane McNichol (30 Posts)

Shane McNichol is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He is also the founder, editor, and writer at and has contributed to and Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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2 responses to “The Big Green Machine: In Praise of Tom Izzo and the Steadiest Program in America”

  1. Brad Jenkins says:

    I agree with all the praise within the article but have a little issue with the title. As great as Izzo’s teams have been, I don’t think we can name them the steadiest program when they have had 12 seasons in those 15 with more than 7 losses while Duke has had but 2. But aside from that nitpick, great job writing about a great coach. He beats everyone he plays … except those 2 ACC Blue Bloods

  2. Voucher Blog says:

    More Big Green Machines Address

    […] also the founder, editor, and writer at and has contributed to […]

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