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Bob Ryan

Izzo prefers home cooking

Spartans stocked with local talent

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 4, 2009
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As a rule, the elite schools have no recruiting boundaries.

North Carolina, Connecticut, Duke, Arizona (in its Lute Olson prime), and many others pride themselves on being able to attract players from sea to shining sea.

But Tom Izzo has now gone to five Final Fours since 1999 by sticking to the recruiting basics. If he could populate the Michigan State roster exclusively with Michigan kids, he would. He gets a few from neighboring Ohio, and there's an occasional Indiana, Illinois or Minnesota. It's almost a given that when he recruits a player, the young man's family can drive to the games.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, you say. What about this kid Chris Allen? He comes from Lawrenceville, Ga. Doesn't that mess up the premise?

"Here's the story. Chris was a special guy," Izzo says. "His aunt and uncle live next to Magic Johnson's mother and father in Lansing, and there was a connection, and he used to come up when he was a young kid."

Izzo's latest Final Four team is a typical Izzo mix. Among his nine-man rotation are five from Michigan, three from Ohio, and the Georgia kid with Michigan ties. Now, he does have a fifth-year senior named Idong Ibok from Nigeria who might very well see some action tonight against UConn, but everybody has a foreign player at one time or another, don't they?

This is the way it's been at Michigan State under Tom Izzo, and this is likely to be the way it remains as long as he's running the program.

"I believe in this state," he says. "I believe there are enough good players in this state for both ourselves and Michigan.

"I still believe in the family atmosphere. Sometimes you get more kids closer to home, more parents involved. Some people can look at that as a negative. I look at it as a positive."

"His teams reflect him," says Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who spent six years recruiting against, and coaching against, Izzo as the coach at Michigan. "He's from the UP [Upper Peninsula]. They're down-to-earth people. Hard-working. Good folks. You can't describe Tom any better than that. His teams are going to be tough. They're going to be physical. And they're going to win."

Amaker points out that Izzo's recruiting M.O. is not unique to Michigan State. Many Big Ten schools stay relatively close to home.

"Look at all of Bob Knight's great teams," Amaker says. "They were almost always comprised of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois kids."

Meanwhile, everyone lusts for the great in-state player, whether it's Minnesota (hello, Kevin), Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, or whoever, and it's very painful when a singular prize eludes their grasp, especially if he stays within the conference.

"There is tremendous pressure at some schools to make sure they get the great in-state player," Amaker says. "The difference in Michigan is that you have two schools fighting over him."

Amaker should know. He might very well still be in Ann Arbor if he could have won a few more of those recruiting battles with Izzo.

Izzo's almost complete takeover of the state is rather amazing. Twenty years ago, Michigan won the national championship, and coach Steve Fisher followed that up by recruiting the celebrated Fab Five. They went to the final twice, and Michigan returned to the NCAA Tournament in 1994, '95, and '96.

And then, for a long, long time . . . nothing.

Izzo took over from Jud Heathcote in 1995. He was in the tournament for the first time in 1998, made the Final Four in 1999, and won it all in 2000. He returned to the Final Four for a third time in 2001 and now has been to the tournament 12 straight years.

Michigan?

Amaker was unable to get Michigan to the tournament even once. But the Wolverines did make their first tourney appearance since 1996 with coach John Beilein this year.

All this time, Izzo has relied heavily on home-grown talent: Mateen Cleaves, Mo Peterson, Charlie Bell, Andre Smith, Marcus Taylor, Kevin Tolbert, Jason Richardson, Paul Davis, Maurice Ager, Drew Neitzel, Drew Naymick, and, from this year's team, Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Draymond Green, and Goran Suton (born in Bosnia, but family moved to Lansing in 2002) are among the in-state players who have gotten Izzo to tournaments, Final Fours, and even a championship.

Amaker doesn't see that changing, simply because Michigan is a fertile basketball proving ground and Izzo himself doesn't change. "He's a class guy all the way," Amaker maintains. "And he knows the terrain. He will always rely heavily on Michigan kids."

He will do so because he truly believes they have innate toughness. It's no secret that the aptly nicknamed Spartans favor a physical style of ball. If there is one constant in college basketball, it is that Michigan State will be at, or very near, the top in rebound margin, year in and year out. The Spartans will also be very rugged defensively.

"I always believe that players play and tough players win," Izzo says. He is also a huge believer in the long-term value of getting loose balls and making other so-called "plays that don't show up in the box score."

"Everybody does the big things," he explains. "The little things are the things you do when nobody's looking."

Izzo's roster is so unfailingly stocked with regional kids that you wonder if he would even bother to recruit a Top 20, Top 50, or even Top 100 kid who comes from, say, California, Texas, Florida or, yup, Massachusetts.

"If you've got a star in Boston and you've got an in for me," he says, "I'll be glad to take him."

OK, Coach, but I'd have to clear it with Al Skinner first. Oops, I mean Tommy Amaker.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.