LAHAINA, Hawaii — A short line of youngsters jutted Sharpies into the hand of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
Izzo was just off a lousy showing in the coaches’ free throw shooting contest on Sunday morning prior to the start of the Maui Invitational. He signed the white panel of basketballs designed for such, and answered directly when asked why he is such a proponent of difficult non-conference schedules.
“Stupidity,” Izzo said.
He scribbled his illegible autograph a few more times, then spouted philosophy about why he makes it so hard on his guys, and himself, to start seasons.
“It just worked for me,” Izzo said. “I like to go to places and play. I’ve been to every place, home and away, played the best teams, the best coaches.
“When I’m done I want to be able to say, you know what? I got to do it the best way I could do it and that was not back down from anybody. If our team and our program gets that mentality, I think we win more than we lose.”
Most of the major conference coaches in America would choke hearing that.
That has not been the approach at Washington since Lorenzo Romar has run the program. Washington rarely stacks the non-conference schedule with anything except home dates. The resulting argument is that approach keeps his teams from pushing past the Sweet 16.
But the Huskies are not alone in the approach. Most power programs play two or three ranked teams during non-conference. Two years ago, Connecticut played three ranked non-conference opponents, yet made it to the Final Four.
Washington has beaten one ranked opponent in non-conference play since the 2006-07 season. The Huskies spanked Glen “Big Baby” Davis and 20th-ranked LSU on Dec. 20, 2006. Since, Washington has lost eight consecutive games to ranked non-conference opponents, making it 1-9 during that stretch.
With the Maui tournament over, the Huskies have played their most difficult stretch of this regular season. Three games in three days. Two against top 10 opponents. Washington is unlikely to face another ranked opponent this year prior to the NCAA tournament.
The Huskies host 3-2 Long Beach State next Tuesday. Michigan State gets a rare chance to whack a patsy on Sunday when it plays Tennessee Tech, then plays at No. 1 Duke on Wednesday. The Spartans have two more ranked teams waiting in non-conference play, Syracuse and Texas, then bang through a stout Big 10. Come Monday, 12 of the Spartans’ 30 opponents will be ranked.
“If you look at the Final Fours, most years that we’ve been there, we’ve had more losses than anybody just because of who we play,” Izzo, who has made back-to-back Final Fours, said. “Someday it’s going to catch me, but until then I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, keep playing who we play. Although this year I might have bit off a little more than I could chew.”
Main concern for Izzo is maintaining confidence. He waffles when considering competition versus confidence. Worries more now about the mental beating his players take in the expansive social media world. Yet he sticks with the approach believing it’s rewarded.
“It’s more about the program than it is about one year,” Izzo said.
The tournament was a revelation for Jim Calhoun’s young Connecticut team. His club will burst into the rankings next week, guard Kemba Walker will be viewed as one of the best in the nation, and he will prove a prophet.
“People see teams, guys who are players, all of a sudden emerge out of this,” Calhoun said Sunday prior to the start of the tournament. “Or, we’ll kind of get disappointments out of this. That’s kind of what this whole thing’s about.”
Washington left Maui with consecutive tight loses. There isn’t a team left on the Huskies’ schedule as good as Michigan State or Kentucky, which both pointed out Washington’s issues.
“I think we saw some weaknesses that we had and at this point, they are weaknesses that are definitely correctable,” Romar said.
Washington is 3-2 after dealing with two top 10 teams. The Huskies started 2009-10 at 5-0 while playing 300-thread count soft programs and made it to the Sweet 16.
“You do take a chance, the moment you get on that plane to Maui, of not starting out the way you normally start out,” Calhoun said.
That’s one thing Washington has learned.