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As Tom Izzo searches for a new assistant coach, ‘Winning Time’ draws parallels to Michigan State far beyond Magic Johnson

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

As Michigan State men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo continues to seek Dwayne Stephens’ replacement at the vacant assistant coach position, I realized that the HBO series “Winning Time” relates to Michigan State basketball more pertinently than its portrayal of Spartan legend Magic Johnson.

I’ve only seen one clip of the show, but I’m confident that the scene with then-Los Angeles Lakers head coach Jack Mckinney’s film session hit home for Spartan faithful just as much, if not more, than the show’s renditions of Gruff Sparty.

McKinney introduces his directive to implement a constant fast-break offense to deviate from the “methodical, predictable and slow” norm of offensive sets and to “make (their) own” breaks.

I imagine Izzo felt a similar sentiment when he implemented this strategy in East Lansing. But somewhere along the line (particularly in the last four to five years) the fast break stalled, and so did MSU’s offense with it. Either teams have figured it out by pressing and playing more zone, or the Spartans’ rosters aren’t as apt to execute it as they were in the past.

But it was the following monologue that’s even more applicable to the state of Michigan State’s program.

“A classical offense is a lot like classical music,” the narrator said. “Coaches put a bunch of notes in place — X’s and O’s — and all the players are supposed to do is hit their cues. It makes it pretty melody, but it’s the same song every time. And everybody in the building knows exactly where it’s going.”

I’ve been trying to put it as concisely for years. When MSU’s fast break fails to produce a basket, its offense can easily be characterized with the same words. It seems that rather than take advantage of an opposing player’s mistakes or imperfections, Izzo instead demands near-perfection from his own players in order to win.

In simpler terms, I feel he often overlooks the human element of basketball during certain in-game sequences. Instead of making his own breaks, sometimes he handicaps them.

For instance, Marcus Bingham Jr. could have started the game by making all three of his early shot attempts, but Izzo expects that he has the mental fortitude to regain his mojo after subbing out for Julius Marble at the under-16-minute timeout.

Marble will play his allotted role to a tee, displaying a stout defensive effort and possibly even posting up for two-to-three easy baskets on the other end.

Rather than riding Bingham’s hot hand to create an advantage in the game and save Marble for his reserve post role, Izzo maintains that his players are prepared to work through these substitutions through rigorous practicing and mental strain.

Sometimes, it works to perfection. Bingham wins the tip, posts up for the first bucket and even makes a three-pointer. Marble comes in and hits a midrange jumper or two and does not give an inch in the post, and the two wash, rinse and repeat all game.

But oftentimes, one — or both — of these players lose their rhythm after a substitution, and MSU cedes any separation it might have gained. These bits of separation or “breaks” are exactly what McKinney and Izzo aimed to exploit when introducing the fast break, and they are often the deciding factor in a game like basketball.

Izzo did express his desire to find an assistant coach more in tune with the times, though – one with youth, vigor and energy, and a knowledge of the transfer portal and potential Name, Image and Likeness opportunities. That much is encouraging.

Seemingly, Izzo is trying to recapture the vigor he held when he first implemented these strategies, so he could definitely benefit from a fresh perspective.

Izzo expressed that this is a rather important hire, and I’d agree, considering any shot at the second title eluding him could be his last.

In the words of Solomon Hughes (playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Winning Time”), some of these ideas would’ve once seemed like “chaos.”

Change often feels that way. Izzo and his staff could afford to bring a little chaos to East Lansing.