When No. 7 seed Michigan State takes the court against No. 3 seed Kansas State at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, it will mark Tom Izzo's 15th Sweet 16 appearance in 28 seasons as the coach of the Spartans. The Hall of Famer has guided the program to 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and has a national title from 2000 to highlight his résumé.
What makes Izzo's legendary tenure so unique, though, is his ability to extract the most from his teams. To have survived the first weekend in 15 of the past 25 NCAA Tournaments is remarkable, especially considering the Spartans have been a No. 1 seed just four times over that span.
Regardless of what happens against the Wildcats on Thursday, this season must enter the conversation as one of Izzo's best coaching jobs. Michigan State spent most of the season unranked while plodding along with an unremarkable competence. It never fell below .500 in conference play and never seemed in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament.
However, the Spartans struggled to string multiple victories together in Big Ten play and never truly looked like a threat to compete for a league title. Izzo has made a habit of pushing such teams to their maximum capacity during his career, and now his 2022-23 Spartans are the last Big Ten team standing in the NCAA Tournament.
Here is a look back at some of his best coaching jobs from nearly three decades on the job. There are many to choose from, but here's one take on the five best in descending order.
Unranked preseason, made Sweet 16 as No. 1 seed
Within the context of a team that was unranked in the preseason on the heels of a 19-15 campaign, the 2011-12 team stands out as one that put the program back on track. The Spartans dropped their opening two games against North Carolina and Duke and didn't reach the AP poll until a month into the season. But they won 10 of their final 12 games entering the NCAA Tournament, capped by a Big Ten Tournament title game victory against an Ohio State team that made a Final Four run.
Making matters more impressive, Draymond Green led this team in scoring by a significant margin. While Green was and is a gifted defensive player, he's not the guy you want as a primary offensive option. The fact that Izzo squeezed 71.6 points per game out of this squad and got it to the No. 1 seed line is incredibly impressive, even if the ending did not include a deep foray into the NCAA Tournament.
Preseason No. 2, reached Final Four as No. 5 seed
Kalin Lucas led Michigan State in points, assists and minutes played. When he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it seemed like the Spartans' chances of making a run might be cooked. Lucas had just scored 25 points in a narrow first-round win over New Mexico State, and the Spartans needed a buzzer-beater from Korie Lucious in the second round to beat Maryland without him.
But Izzo rallied the Spartans, who beat Northern Iowa 59-52 in the Sweet 16 and then defeated Tennessee 70-69 in the Elite Eight. With Lucas out, Durrell Summers stepped up by scoring 19 points against UNI and 21 against the Vols. Michigan State ran out of gas in a 52-50 loss to Butler during the Final Four, but most teams wouldn't have made it that far without their best player. A Final Four run seemed plausible amid lofty preseason expectations, but within the context of a No. 5 seed and an injured star, the runs stands out as one of Izzo's best works.
Preseason No. 18, made Final Four as No. 7 seed
This was a vintage Izzo run because the Spartans began the season ranked No. 18, then dropped out of the AP poll for much of the year before somehow wandering their way into the Final Four as a No. 7 seed. There was little reason to expect such a deep run after the loss of stars like Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling from a team that made the Elite Eight the year prior.
But behind a senior-season surge from Travis Trice, the Spartans made it to the sport's grand stage. Trice started just eight games in his first three seasons for the Spartans and averaged only 7.3 points per game as a junior while serving as a complementary piece to Harris and Appling. But much like Tyson Walker is doing for Michigan State this season, Trice saved his best for his senior season. He emerged as the team's leading scorer and turned it up a notch higher in March by averaging 17.4 points in the Spartans' eight postseason games. He earned East Region MVP during the Big Dance after scoring a team-high 17 points in an Elite Eight win over Louisville.
Preseason No. 13, Made Final Four as No. 5 seed
On the heels of three relatively lean years by Izzo's lofty standards, Michigan State entered the 2004-05 season ranked No. 13 and plummeted to No. 20 following a head-scratching loss at George Washington on Dec. 4. What ensued from there doubtlessly constitutes one of Izzo's best works. Michigan State's regular-season losses from that point included a three-point road loss against Wisconsin, a loss against No. 1 Illinois and a four-point overtime loss at Indiana.
Still, the Spartans earned only a No. 5 seed for the NCAA Tournament. From there, they beat Old Dominion and Vermont before arriving to a brutal Austin Regional that included No. 1 seed Duke and No. 2 seed Kentucky. Izzo guided his Spartans past both, including a double-overtime classic victory over the Wildcats. If there was any doubt over whether the Spartans belonged with the "big boys" of college basketball, wins over the Blue Devils and Wildcats erased it as Michigan State made its fourth Final Four appearance under Izzo's direction.
Preseason No. 3, won national title as No. 1 seed
Any ranking of Izzo's best coaching jobs must include the program's 2000 national title. The Spartans began the season ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, never fell lower than No. 11 and earned a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. So while big things were always expected from this squad, led by the likes of Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, the fact that Izzo got them to the finish line as champions stands out.
The Spartans' 2000 national title is the last won by any Big Ten team, and it remains the highlight of Izzo's résumé. It was just his fifth season as coach, and the accomplishment solidified Izzo as one of the best in the business, laying the groundwork for subsequent triumphs. Without this title, the conversation around Izzo sounds different 23 years later. It would be something like this: "Izzo is great in March but he can never get his teams over the hump to win a title." The 2000 team forever set the narrative around Izzo's coaching career and helps support his immense legacy nearly a quarter century later.