Blair Kerkhoff

Blair Kerkhoff: Kansas vs. Michigan State is not about the seeds

Tom Izzo says Michigan State's 'lack of fear' helps in underdog role

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo offers his thoughts on his team's record as an underdog in the NCAA basketball tournament as they prepare to face No. 1 seed Kansas.
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Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo offers his thoughts on his team's record as an underdog in the NCAA basketball tournament as they prepare to face No. 1 seed Kansas.

No Kansas-Michigan State game deserves to be perceived by seed.

The Jayhawks are the No. 1 in the Midwest, the Spartans the No. 9. Ones are favored to roll in these games, Villanova’s loss to Wisconsin on Saturday upsetting the East bracket to the contrary. The top-seed won this game 115 times in 128 attempts from 1985-2016.

But when this or any meeting in the NCAA Tournament involves two of the most successful programs and among the most recognizable and popular brands, when one coach is in the Naismith Hall of Fame and the other is a finalist in his first year of eligibility, seeds rank down the list of defining matchup characteristics.

Kansas coach Bill Self, the Naismith Hall finalist, understood this the moment the bracket was announced.

“I’m seeing Michigan State in the 8-9 game, and I’m going what kind of joke is this?” Self said.

The Spartans have been a nemesis for Self and KU. Michigan State is the only program that has played a Self-coach team least 10 times and owns a winning record (7-5) against him. At Kansas, Self is 2-4 in those games, including a loss in the 2009 Sweet 16 along with both meetings in the Champions Classic.

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self spoke to reporters on Saturday, March 18, 2017, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. The Jayhawks will face Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

Even Michigan State players didn’t bite when offered to paint themselves as underdogs by seeding.

“You just got to go out there and play this game like it’s your last game because it could be,” junior guard Tum Tum Narin said. “For us, we’re not focusing on seeds.”

These are programs that think in terms of winning the national championship every year. Kansas owns college basketball’s longest streak of playing in the NCAA Tournament of 28 years and counting. Michigan State is third on the current list with 20.

The Spartans’ streak looked shaky for a couple of weeks this season as forces worked against the program, some self-inflected. Michigan State probably over scheduled – Kansas is the fourth team the Spartans will meet that has been ranked first nationally at some point this season — and coach Tom Izzo knew he’d have a young team.

He lost his starting center to a knee injury in the preseason and starting off-guard, also to a knee injury, last month. When Selection Sunday came around, the Spartans felt good about their chances of inclusion but this isn’t a program that’s had to concern itself about such matters. The No. 9 seed matches the worst for the program since 2002.

But Michigan State’s performance in the tournament opener looked like a team that knew wasn’t intimidated by the moment. After falling behind Miami by 12 points in the first half, the Spartans roared to a 20-point victory. Games involving 8-9 seeds should be nail-biters. This one became a laugher.

This is Izzo and Michigan State in March, and Self recognized it.

“I don’t know what he does at the beginning of March that’s different than what most mortals do but he gets his team ready to play,” Self said.

That’s reflected not only in Izzo’s NCAA Tournament record, his 47 victories match John Wooden for seventh all-time, but in his ability to outfox his opponent on the short turnaround game, like Sunday’s.

Since becoming Michigan State’s coach in 1995, Izzo has lost only one second-round game.

Two years ago, Izzo famously changed his defense on the in-between day, which allowed his seventh-seeded team to knocked off No. 2 seed Virginia and pave the way to a Final Four appearance.

There have been five first game bounce outs like last year’s shocking loss to Middle Tennessee State as a No. 2 seed, but once Izzo’s Spartans start winning the momentum builds, which helps explain his seven Final Four appearances.

Three of them occurred in consecutive seasons and included his 2000 national title team. Those groups laid the foundation for the program’s culture, its toughness and desire to measure itself against other top teams, like Kansas.

“Maybe it’s the lack of fear that’s given us some success over the years,” Izzo said.

A program with that approach doesn’t care about its seed line.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

Self vs. Izzo

Since Bill Self took over at KU in the 2003-04 season, the Jayhawks are just 2-4 against Tom Izzo and Michigan State:





Nov. 17, 2015

MSU 79, KU 73

c-in Chicago

Nov. 30, 2014

KU 61, MSU 56

in Orlando, Fla.

Nov. 13, 2012

MSU 67, KU 64

c-in Atlanta

March 27, 2009

MSU 67, KU 62

NCAA Sweet 16

Jan. 10, 2009

MSU 75, KU 62

in East Lansing, Mich.

Nov. 25, 2003

KU 81, MSU 74

in Lawrence, Kan.

Note: c-Champions Classic