Up the mountain

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The long climb toward a second Izzo-era national championship begins.

I am a child of the Jud Heathcote era.  I'm not old enough to remember seeing Magic or Scott Skiles play.  But I am old enough to remember Steve Smith, Matt Steigenga, and Parish Hickman.  And there are some good things to remember from that era: a series of high-scoring guards, a Big Ten championship, the occasional NCAA tournament appearance.

The moments that stick in my head from that period, though, were the disappointments.  My earliest memory as a Spartan fan is listening to the radio as the basketball team blew like a 15-point lead in the final two minutes in a home game against Iowa.  (I remember it so distinctly, I think, because my dad was at the game.)  I remember listening to the radio in my high school's weight room as MSU barely escaped being the first 1-seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament.  (That one's distinct partly because I have no other memories of ever being in my high school's weight room.)  And I remember, on the heels of my first season as a student ticket holder, the crash-and-burn ending to the Heathcote era as Shawn Respert and Eric Snow went down to 14-seed Weber State.

Jud Heathcote was one part Gene Keady and one part John L. Smith.  Post-1979, the highs weren't all that high, and the lows were pretty low.

Then came Tom Izzo.  Izzo rightly praises Heathcote for paving the way for the program's rise to long-term prominence, but let's be clear, Izzo did the heavy lifting.

Taking over a team with almost nothing in the way of major conference talent (go-to guy: Ray Weathers), Izzo somehow managed to get to .500 in conference play those first two seasons, and then, bammo, it was off to the races.  I'm embarrassed to say I didn't stick it out as a student ticket holder for those first three Izzo seasons.  So I missed out on the out-of-nowhere Big Ten championship and Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1998.  But I was there for the rest of the sprint up the mountain--standing in the second row off the court in 2000 (no jokes please; I got two degrees).

It's history now, so it seems like it was destiny: get the not-so-skilled-but-tough-as-nails rebounder from Flint who sets the tone, watch his more talented friends follow him to East Lansing the next couple years, add two NCAA wins per year, and, voilà, national championship.

As the Izzo era proceeded, though, it would turn out to be not quite as easy as they made it look in 2000.  The 2001 team, with perhaps more overall talent than the 2000 team, collapsed against an even more talented Arizona team in Minneapolis.  Then guys left early--some smartly, some not so smartly.  A full rotation was rebuilt for 2005, but again, it ran into a more talented group in the Final Four.  Four years later, same deal at Ford Field.  The following season, the cards fell nicely in terms of the tournament opposition, but the basketball gods took our starting point guard and the refs didn't think our sophomore power forward got fouled by Cinderella.

Post-2000, the lows haven't been very low and the highs have been pretty darn high.  But, for all of Tom Izzo's March magic, the program has repeatedly come up one or two steps short of the peak.

Which brings us to this moment.  It's been three seasons without a Final Four appearance.  Those seasons have brought a Big Ten championship and four NCAA tournament wins--successes by mortal standards, but short of the standard set by the seeming immortal at our helm.

As he enters the season that will tie him with his mentor for longevity as MSU's head coach, Tom Izzo looks to extend his vaunted every-four-year-player-has-made-the-Final-Four streak and, more importantly, grab the elusive national championship that would put him in a club of just nine guys in the last 50 years to win two of them and put MSU in a club of just nine programs in any era to win three of them.

Again, the pieces all seem to be in place.  In fact, the pieces look even shinier than the previous teams that have taken a serious run at Izzo's second championship:

Msu_contenders_medium

For the first time since 2001, MSU has two NBA-ready stars, with a more experienced supporting cast surrounding them.  It wasn't a simple exercise getting here--it took a few recruiting surprises and a couple favorable early-entry decisions--but this is the elusive Izzo sweet spot.

Izzo has aimed a little higher in his recruiting efforts of late, going after the immediately-NBA-ready types, and he's come up largely empty-handed.  That's very likely to make next year a true rebuilding season (although, again, Tom Izzo rebuilding seasons still involve a trip to the Big Dance).  The starting lineup could well be something like Nairn/Trice/Valentine/Gauna/Costello.  Solid, but probably not Final Four-contending.

The head coach has a couple more rebuilding cycles left in him, we think, but those cycles are starting to feel distinctly finite.  An opportunity as good as this season's may not come along again.

As long a trek as it's been to get to this point, the climb ahead is still a long one: a four-month regular season, with the usual high-profile nonconference foes, and then 18 games in what could again be the toughest conference in the country, followed by a postseason competition that provides zero margin for error.

MSU is hardly a heavy favorite to win the national championship.  Even the most dominant preseason favorite wouldn't be even money, and there are four other teams out there that appear to bring roughly the same level of overall ability into the campaign.  It's still a crapshoot.  But it looks like a crapshoot with evenly weighted dice.

If this Spartan squad finishes short of a national championship, it won't be a failure, but it will be a disappointment.  We'll enjoy the ride and do our best to remember how fortunate we are to have the guy we have on the sideline.  But the days of feeling fortunate just to play into the second half of March are gone.  April is the expectation now.  And hanging a third banner in the Breslin Center to match the ones that say "1979" and "2000" next November is the goal.

It's a long way to the top.  We've been there before.  It's worth the trip, and the risk.  Off we go.

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