I must be missing something.
On Monday night, the Big Ten handed out its postseason basketball honors and named this season’s all-conference teams. I was half-paying attention to the announcement on Big Ten Network and half-doing homework, because honestly, these awards mean squat in the grand scheme of postseason basketball.
I should have been tuning into ESPN to watch VCU and Drexel battle for the Colonial Athletic Association Championship and a chance to wear the glass slipper in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But alas, I am a Big Ten beat reporter, and I reluctantly watched Michigan State’s Draymond Green accept his inevitable Player of the Year award.
Then the Big Ten awarded Spartan coach Tom Izzo with Coach of the Year.
I perked up from behind my accounting textbook and listened intently. That couldn’t be right. If the members of the selection committee really chose Izzo over Michigan coach John Beilein or Indiana coach Tom Crean, they’re out of their minds.
The announcement continued — the media panel and the conference’s coaches had both settled on Izzo.
Even the coaches?
The Big Ten basketball coaches are among the most highly revered in the sport — experts in their craft. I’m an undergraduate nobody with a MacBook keyboard and opinions that, if I’m lucky, a freshman will read while he sits in an Ugli bathroom stall.
If the coaches thought Izzo deserved the honor, they probably see something I don’t.
But here is what I see:
Michigan State, without doubt, just completed an impressive regular-season campaign. The Spartans returned to their typical Big Ten-powerhouse role following an underwhelming 2010-11 season, and Izzo’s touch was a necessary ingredient to that turnaround.
The Spartans also played a particularly tough schedule, battling some top ACC opponents early in the year before entering their grueling Big Ten schedule. And they did it all just a year after losing star point guard Kalin Lucas to graduation.
Overall, Michigan State’s performance this year was quite commendable.
But at Big Ten Media Day back in October, the Spartans were projected to finish in the top three of the conference standings. They were expected to return to their normal selves and to become a force to be reckoned with once again.
Let’s not forget that Izzo’s leaders on the court are Green and sophomore point guard Keith Appling — a pair of former ESPN top-50 recruits. And he replenished his lineup with former McDonald’s All-American and current freshman Branden Dawson.
So, yes, the premier Michigan State program is back. But did anyone expect otherwise? The Spartans were never short on talent, and even in their down season a year ago they still advanced all the way to the Big Ten Tournament semifinal and earned an NCAA Tournament bid.
When I’m looking for a Coach of the Year, I’m looking for a coach who turned heads.
In November, Beilein and the Wolverines traveled to the Maui Invitational to take on some of the top competition in the country. He took with him a freshman point guard whose collective collegiate experience had come against Ferris State, Towson and Western Illinois — a solid collection of mid-major nothingness. Beilein also brought along a pair of senior co-captains in Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, who both received just one major Division-I scholarship offer back in high school, that coming from Michigan.
On day one in Maui, Beilein’s crew of rag-tag underdogs shut down then-No. 8 Memphis and immediately began to garner the national attention it deserved. And with the spotlight on in conference play, the Wolverines went toe-to-toe with the Big Ten elites and earned a share of the regular-season crown.
Beilein’s team doesn’t win on pure talent. His guys aren’t known for their athleticism, and they rarely have opportunities to execute flashy, rim-rocking alley-oops.
Michigan wins because Beilein’s fingerprints are all over the program. He’s the coach who inherited a star-studded team with Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims but became a champion five years later when his go-to guys were Novak and Douglass.
That’s all coaching, and to me, what Beilein’s done this season is an accomplishment worthy of Coach of the Year honors.
But hey, I’m just a writer. Maybe there’s something I don’t see.
— Pasch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @lucaspasch.