Tom Izzo is an old-school coach in a strange new world, but his edge remains as cutting as ever. That was evident last November, when he signed a four-man recruiting class that includes two McDonald’s All-Americans and ranks as one of his best hauls at Michigan State. It was evident in March, when Izzo led his seventh-seeded Spartans to a second-round upset of No. 2 Marquette, marking the 15th time in the last 25 NCAA Tournaments that he has made at least the second weekend. And it was evident in April, when two of his top five scorers, guard Tyson Walker and forward Malik Hall, announced that they were returning for a fifth season, courtesy of the NCAA’s decision to grant all athletes an extra year of eligibility during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of this leaves Izzo’s program in a spot that is both futuristic and all too familiar. The Spartans have ended the last three seasons unranked in the final regular-season AP Top 25 poll, yet with Walker and Hall back in the fold alongside three other returning starters plus that stellar recruiting class, Michigan State is set to enter the 2023-24 season as a consensus top-five team. That shouldn’t be surprising considering Izzo’s Hall of Fame credentials, but it is striking that Izzo has put his program in this position without bringing in a single transfer. Walker, who came from Northeastern two years ago, will be the only player on next season’s roster who began his career elsewhere. That is a rarity in today’s game, but for Izzo, this method of roster building is very much intentional, and well within his comfort zone. “I’m trying to run a relationships-based program more than a transaction-based program,” Izzo said. “I still want to develop players. I still want somebody to have some loyalty to our school. Is that old school? I don’t think so. It’s not the way things are going, but I still think it’s the right way for us, and I still think it’s the right way for the kids.”
It didn’t take long after the season ended for that notion to be proven correct. As Izzo walked into the locker room to console his players following their overtime loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16, he instinctively wanted to pivot to next season, but he was unsure how to go about it. “You walk in there and address your team, and I’m thinking, who do I talk to? Who’s going to come back? Who’s not going to come back?” he said. “You just never know.”
The only thing Izzo knew for sure was that 6-9 senior forward Joey Hauser had used up all his eligibility. Walker and Hall, on the other hand, had decisions to make, but their conversations with Izzo over the next couple of days indicated they were leaning towards returning. In Hall’s case, the calculus was complicated by a lingering stress reaction in his left foot, which caused him to miss 11 games and required surgery two weeks ago to insert a plate. Neither player was projected to be drafted by the NBA, but a lot of seniors in similar positions have elected to move on. And given how easy it is for players to transfer these days, and given how much money is available through NIL agreements, there was no guarantee that either would be back in East Lansing even if they wanted to play another year in college.