Michigan State's upset of Kentucky days after losing to Gonzaga shows why Tom Izzo schedules tough games

Michigan State’s upset of Kentucky days after losing to Gonzaga shows why Tom Izzo schedules tough games

Armed with what amounts to a lifetime contract, plus a team he likes despite it not being as talented as some of his best, Tom Izzo scheduled this season in a way most other high-major coaches would never.

Gonzaga on a ship? Safe! Kentucky in Indianapolis? Book it! Villanova at home? Deal! A tournament in Portland with North Carolina, Alabama, UConn and Oregon? Sign the contract! At Notre Dame? Why not!

Keep in mind, Michigan State still has to play a 20-game Big Ten schedule featuring multiple contests against Indiana, Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State and Iowa. Then comes the Big Ten Tournament. That’s the type of reality that would lead a lot of coaches to ease into January.

But not Izzo.

The Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer remains a fearless scheduler because he understands two things: 1) The only way to get big non-league wins is to schedule big non-league games, and 2) Non-league losses to quality opponents don’t hurt you with smart people and/or the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

With this in mind, Izzo loaded up.

On Tuesday night, his approach paid off.

Final scores: Michigan State 86, Kentucky 77 in double overtime. Four days after losing 64-63 to No. 2 Gonzaga off the coast of San Diego, the Spartans upset No. 4 Kentucky in the opening game of the Champions Classic in Indianapolis and will now move into the top five of the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1 when the daily college basketball rankings update Wednesday morning.

“I’m proud of the players for coming back so disappointed after that big loss [to Gonzaga],” Izzo said, “and [for] being resilient enough [to beat Kentucky].”

Though Izzo spent his postgame press conference crediting his players and assistants, the truth is that his fingerprints were all over the victory in a way that screamed “COACHING MATTERS!” In the final seconds of regulation, he designed a baseline out-of-bounds play that led to a Malik Hall dunk that tied the score at 62 and forced overtime. Then, in the final seconds of the first overtime, he designed a length-of-the-court out-of-bounds play that led to another dunk from Hall that tied the score at 71 and forced a second OT.

“Oh yeah, I set them up. I said, ‘Let’s just go dunk the damn ball,'” Izzo joked. “I like dunks.” Added Kentucky coach John Calipari: “When you talk about late-game situations, that’s on me.”

(I’m sure the UK message boards will have fun with that quote.)

When we published the CBS Sports list of the Top 100 And 1 players in college basketball last month, three Kentucky players were included — namely Oscar Tshiebwe (No. 2), Cason Wallace (No. 30) and Sahvir Wheeler (No. 67). Meantime, zero Michigan State players made the list.

In fairness, perhaps that’s an oversight on our part. But I genuinely don’t remember anybody complaining about it too loudly, which speaks to the talent difference, perceived or otherwise, between UK and MSU.

Regardless, MSU prevailed.

So the Spartans are now 2-1 through three games with a single-point loss to Gonzaga and a double-overtime win over Kentucky. They’re already twice-tested and full of confidence just nine days into the season. For that, the Spartans can thank Izzo — in part for the way he designed those two out-of-bounds plays that forced two overtimes and led to the resume-building win, but mostly for being fearless enough to routinely put his players in challenging games most coaches prefer to avoid in November.

“We’re here,” said Michigan State senior Joey Hauser, who finished with 23 points and eight rebounds. “We’ll take on anyone — anytime, any day.”

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