Bob Wojnowski: In portal-crazy world, Tom Izzo stuck with his players, and it’s paying off

Tribune Content Agency

He heard it all offseason. He heard it when Michigan State lost five of seven in the Big Ten. Oh, and you can bet he heard it when the Spartans blew a 13-point lead in an overtime collapse at Iowa.

I’ll paraphrase it for the people in the back: Tom, why didn’t you sign more players? Why didn’t you grab more transfers? What were you thinking??!

Tom Izzo was thinking what his returning players were thinking, that trust is a powerful motivator. He stuck with them, they stuck with him. And after that inexplicable loss to Iowa, Izzo said it to them, the media and anyone still listening. He concluded an interview session with a statement more plaintive than defiant: “Don’t give up on us. Don’t give up on us.”

Now here they are, in the Sweet 16 against Kansas State, arriving not necessarily as a complete team, but as an experienced, connected team. Izzo left three scholarships open rather than dive into the portal or grab another high school body. He has a top-five recruiting class coming in, so there will be reinforcements soon enough. And while Izzo chafes at portal mania, he’s not opposed to dabbling. Two of Michigan State’s top players — Joey Hauser and Tyson Walker — came via the portal, from Marquette and Northeastern, respectively.

Both were here last season, along with most of the current rotation. It sets up a fascinating study Thursday night in Madison Square Garden between the seventh-seeded Spartans and third-seeded Wildcats. Kansas State has a first-year coach, Jerome Tang, who inherited a roster with only two players, including flashy 5-8 point guard Markquis Nowell. Out of necessity, he added five transfers, including leading scorer Keyontae Johnson, and Kansas State was still picked to finish last in the Big 12.

Did the Wildcats do the right thing? Did Izzo do it the right way?

There’s no blanket answer, and for every team boosted by transfers, just as many have struggled (see: Illinois). Contrary to popular concerns, the portal hasn’t damaged the NCAA Tournament, just made it even more unpredictable. Izzo makes it clear he’s not opposed to the concept of player freedom. But he sees numbers the average fan doesn’t see, of players transferring multiple times and never getting settled, or players who enter the portal and don’t land anywhere.

“The last thing I want to talk about is the portal because it’s such a controversial subject that I always seem to get in the middle of,” Izzo said. “I’ll say it now, I’ll say it till the day I die — I do not see anything good for the players.”

Trust in us

He means generally, not specifically. His own transfers, Hauser and Walker, have benefited tremendously, as have the Spartans. It’s a thin line to straddle, and that’s why Izzo’s stance can be controversial. It certainly has benefited Kansas State, which added transfers from Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, LSU, Mississippi State and Florida who were main contributors in last weekend’s 75-69 victory over Kentucky.

Each program is different, each coach is different, each transfer has different motives. Is Izzo ready to take a victory lap for sticking to his plan and sticking with his guys? Probably not yet. It’s still delicate, and the Spartans aren’t overly deep to withstand injuries.

But for the players who stay, there’s empowerment in knowing they’re counted on even more. There’s also the experience of playing together, and enduring tough times together. In a sense, Izzo bet on himself, and also on his players.

“Most definitely, it shows the confidence Coach had in us,” said A.J. Hoggard, the junior guard who seized command of the offense once given the chance. “He saw something in us last year and knew that the core guys coming back, the veteranship that we had, could definitely do something special this year. Coach trusts us, we trust him.”

Of course it doesn’t always work that way. Hauser considered moving on after four years of college. Malik Hall weighed his options too. One player did transfer — Julius Marble (Texas A&M) — and the team’s top three scorers graduated or opted for the pros. When that happened, and Izzo brought in three freshmen who have played sparingly, hoo-boy, you know how rational and patient fans are, right?

It was the prevailing debate around the program, with the roster below the 13-scholarship limit. Izzo insisted he liked what he had and saw possibilities in center Mady Sissoko. Many thought Sissoko was merely a raw 6-9 project, but he’s improved steadily and become a solid interior defender.

“The portal is not all bad, let’s get that straight,” Izzo said. “What to me is bad is, every kid who has a bad day just thinks about leaving, and at this level, if you’re half-in, you’re nowhere. … Yeah, we could have gone in (the portal). But you just have a feel. I’ve told them a bunch of times and my assistants tell them all the time — he believed in you. And if I was a player, I’d be saying I must have believed in him and his program too, or I would have left. So it works both ways.”

Coming and going

One portal positive is that players have more control over their careers. Used to be, if you didn’t fit in a program, you were stuck, or forced to sit a year. Now players can seek better opportunities.

One negative is, players often don’t know what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it. Last Monday, the new portal window opened and 170 players jumped in by the end of the day. Some notables already landed at new schools, such as Illinois’ Skyy Clark signing with Louisville, and Notre Dame guard J.J. Starling landing at Syracuse. North Carolina, one year removed from a national title, quickly lost four players to the portal.

Kansas State would’ve been doomed without its portal pillaging, and now Tang has an athletic, aggressive team that plays with a feisty chip. Although built differently, Izzo’s team has a similar disposition.

“Obviously it inspires confidence in you as a player, just because it allows you to feel comfortable in your setting, which is a very, very big thing,” Hall said. “Everybody loves to be comfortable.”

Comfortable but not entitled, especially applicable for a roster low on NBA talent. The Spartans aren’t loaded athletically, so the players weren’t necessarily looking for better options.

“Kids should have the freedom to transfer, but when you give it to him with no responsibilities and no accountability and just do what you want when you want, I just don’t think it benefits them,” Izzo said. “So it’s helped Kansas State in this case. But we’ll see, I guess time will tell on that. … As we’re learning around the league here, those who want to jump that way, it doesn’t always work. So be careful what you wish for. I could have, but I believed in these guys. And there’s something they believed in here. That’s the beauty of sticking together. And if it carries us through the weekend, it’ll be one of the great life lessons learned.”

If the Spartans make it past Kansas State, and then past the Tennessee-Florida Atlantic winner, they’d reach the Final Four for the ninth time under Izzo. It would be a lesson about not giving in. And also a reminder that in an ever-changing sport, perseverance and trust still count for something.