Tom Izzo is already a Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer with a national title and eight trips to the Final Four under his belt. His coaching legacy is secure forever. He’s an all-time great with nothing left to prove.
But he doesn’t feel that way.
Izzo desperately wants to win a second national championship and become just the 16th coach in Division I men’s basketball history to secure multiple titles. He’s told me that many times. And though I’ve never heard him dwell on it too much, I’m certain his 2-12 career record against fellow Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski heading into this year’s Champions Classic had to eat at him (at least a little bit) too.
So, no, the Cameron Crazies were not inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was not a normal/wild setting. But that shouldn’t take anything away from No. 8 Michigan State recording an impressive 75-69 victory over No. 6 Duke on Tuesday night. And Izzo made it clear afterward that he’s happy to add it to his record.
“I know one thing — I’m not gonna put this as an asterisk,” he said. “It was a good win for us against a good team and a great program.”
Duke and Michigan State are two of the biggest and most familiar brands in college basketball — but both teams are very different than they were last season. The Spartans lost their top two scorers (Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman). The Blue Devils lost their top three scorers (Vernon Carey, Tre Jones, Cassius Stanley). So both programs are asking players to do things they’ve never done. And, quite simply, Michigan State’s players did those things better than Duke’s players did them in this game.
That’s why the Spartans won.
It was clear, heading into this season, that Michigan State being great would be reliant on Aaron Henry or Rocket Watts having a breakthrough year. They combined to average 19.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists last season. They combined to get 34 points, eight rebounds and seven assists against Duke.
“We put Aaron at the point some, and he did a helluva job,” Izzo said. “We rode him like a horse.”
Meantime, Duke’s so-called horses were a little less ridable. Jalen Johnson, who got 19 points and 19 rebounds in the season-opener against Coppin State, was held to 11 points and four rebounds against Michigan State. Wendell Moore missed all nine shots he took. DJ Steward missed all seven shots he took. The Blue Devils finished with just nine assists and 12 turnovers. So while they deserve credit for competing until the final horn despite trailing by 16 points in the second half, their performance in general served as a reminder that this is the first year since 2012 that Duke did not enroll a consensus top-10 prospect to help replace what exited.
Does that mean Duke is destined for mediocrity?
Of course not.
The Blue Devils have finished in the top 10 at KenPom in six of the past eight seasons. They’re one of the most reliable programs, if not the most reliable program, in the country. Discount them at your own risk.
As for Michigan State, the Spartans were picked fourth in the preseason Big Ten poll despite the fact that they’ve won at least a share of three straight Big Ten titles. And perhaps that’s where they’ll finish. As always, we’ll see. But if you can win at Cameron Indoor, even an empty Cameron Indoor, winning a fourth straight Big Ten title is definitely a possibility. And maybe, just maybe, it’s also a sign that the second national championship Tom Izzo so desperately wants is also a goal worth setting and chasing.