The Brilliance of Michigan State’s Tom Izzo

The Brilliance of Tom Izzo

I knew what I knew when we were a 7 seed and we were struggling a little bit. I knew what I knew now [that we’ve made it to the Final Four]. We weren’t as bad as they thought when we were there. And we’re not as good as they think now. I don’t worry about those things. Twitter has caused it where those things are so second to second. The only problem I have is making sure my kids don’t believe whatever they say, because they either think they’re too damn good or they’re too damn bad. I don’t like it either way.

– Tom Izzo

(on his team after they made the Final Four)


The Master of March 

Tom Izzo is without question the greatest March Madness coach in the history of college basketball.

Here’s why:

Recently Fivethirtyeight broke down the number of wins that every college coach has won in comparison to what their were seeded. The higher the seed, the more games they were expected to win.

According to Michigan State’s seeding over the years they were expected to win 30.2 games in the tournament. But Izzo has exceeded that number by winning a staggering 46.4 tournament games, a difference of 16.2. The next highest differential in tournament games won verse expected wins is Rick Pitino at 11.9.

Izzo just clinched his 7th trip to the Final Four which ties him with Rick Pitino and Roy Williams. That group only trails the likes of Coach K, Dean Smith, and John Wooden for most trips to the Final Four.

Izzo rarely gets the same amount of big-time recruits that programs like Kentucky and Duke get, yet he is still successful in March year after year.

How does he do it?

Here are 4 specific principles that makes Izzo successful. 


1. He Prioritises the Process 

  • Izzo was recently on a nationally syndicated radio program and was asked about his team’s consistent greatness when it comes to playing in March. What he said might surprise you. He didn’t talk about “peaking at the right time” but rather about how to team approaches the beginning of the season.
  • A lot of high profile teams will play a cupcake schedule at the beginning of the year to inflate their record as they head into conference play. The Spartans do the exact opposite. Their athletic director signs them up for some of the most “out of the box”/challenging environments that a team can face. Just in the past few years, the Spartans have traveled overseas, played on a aircraft carrier, and constantly are challenging the best teams in the country at the start of the season.
  • As a result of this strategy the Spartans usually take a couple of losses early in the season; of all the Final Fours they’ve made the Spartans are always the team with the most losses. If Izzo was worried about his record, he wouldn’t sign his teams up for these games. Instead Izzo cares deeply about the process his team needs to go through to reach their potential.
  • The regular season is the time for the team to grow and mature so that they build a foundation for post-season play. Tournament games are often decided by a few points, and the compeition that Izzo subjects his team to during the regular season, allows them to play with confidence in March.
  • Izzo knows that even if they take some lumps early, the long-term benefits will outweigh the early losses. Ultimately, those experiences will galvanise his players for the ultimate test in March. Often his teams get knocked down and suffer in the national rankings, but in the end they learn what it takes to compete against the best, and when March rolls around Tom Izzo’s teams are better prepared than anybody for the difficult road ahead.


2. He Preaches and Lives a Model of Accountability 

  • At the beginning of every season Izzo has all of his players write down their personal goals and team goals on an index card. He then keeps all of these index cards in his office during the season. If there ever comes a time when a player’s actions are failing to live up to the standards that will help them reach their goals, Izzo will bring out the card and have a conversation with them. The accountability is a two way street: the players set the standard initially and Izzo makes sure they live up to those standards. This exercise creates an atmosphere of accountability which everyone is forced to be a part of.

3. He is Brutally Realistic

  • In the quote at the beginning of the email Izzo talks about living in that space between arrogance (thinking you are better than you are) and self-deprication (thinking you are worse than you are). When you can take a realistic approach to objectively assessing your team then you can do two things well. First, you can play to your teams strengths and learn to hide their weaknesses. Second, you can find ways to improve on the areas you need to get better in. 

4. He gets Seniors to Buyin to the Team

  • During the middle of this season Izzo decided to pull Travis Trice one of his senior guards from the starting lineup. When asked about how he communicated the change this is what he had to say:
“That was really a concern. I have a good relationship with my player. I called him and I told him. I didn’t surprise him. I didn’t say you’re not starting because you played like … even though he had a couple games like that. I called his dad and let him know what was going on. If there was an elephant in the room, I’m going to address the elephant and that kind of saves you in situations like this. I told him that. 


  • Izzo was straightforward and honest with his communication which allowed Trice to respect him through the process (even if he didn’t like or agree with the decision). Trice bought into the decision and the Spartans have made yet another improbably run to the Final Four.

Application: Lead like Izzo

Here are four practical suggestions for you to consider as you think about ways to help your team grow:

1. The Golden Rule of “Process as Priority”

Use the golden rule of “process as priority” as a grid through which you make all major decisions for your ball club. Coaches have a lot of decisions to make when it comes to they team and often they have no grid on which to run their decisions through. Every decision you make should align with the “process as priority” slogan. Don’t get caught up making decisions based on short term outcomes. Do what’s best for your team in the long run.


2. Live in the Space between Reality and Self-Deprication

Communicate with your team in a way that highlights the reality of a situation while never becoming self-deprecating. For example, if your team struggles with taking charges you could track how many charges you take in practice and post those numbers after practice with some kind of incentive to reinforce that behavior. You wouldn’t want to just yell and scream at your team to “do it better” you have to find a way to communicate the truth and a need for growth without making it personal. 


3. Create Systems of Accountability

Just as Izzo has every one of his player write down their goals before the season, find a way to encourage buy-in from everyone on the team. Draft a team mission statement, create a team crest or slogan, print up quotes and hang them around the locker room, etc etc. Find a way to create an environment of accountability so that everyone feels a part of something bigger than themselves.

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Preparation Wins Championships

2 Stories of Season Saving Preparation

“At practice they had that play, and I got beat on it.”

– Malcom Butler


We usually don’t switch from sport to sport, but with the culmination of the SuperBowl, these two stories from the NFL are too good to pass up…typically we try to find anecdotes within the world of basketball that learn more about how to increase our leadership capacity, but after hearing these next two stories from the NFL in the past two weeks, I thought we had to write a post on it.

Two stories of extraordinary preparation from two of the games greatest coaches (Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll) made the difference in two of the biggest games of the year for their teams. These two stories were reminders about how thorough preparation can make the difference in hyper competitive contests. After hearing these stories, I can confidently say that neither team, the Patriots nor the Seahawks would have accomplished what they did this season if it wasn’t for the attention to detail exhibited by their coaches on the two most crucial plays of their seasons.



The Fake Field Goal

In the Seahawks conference championship game, they were struggling against a visiting Packers squad. Down 16-0 with 5 minutes left in the third quarter they executed a fake field goal that changed the momentum of the game. On the surface it could appear that Carroll decided on a whim to go for the fake field goal, but underneath the surface was a much more intricate decision process; this process was informed by their scouting and preparation for the Packers.




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The Seahawks coaching staff had noticed a tendency for reserve linebacker Brad Jones to come screaming off the edge trying to block the field goal attempt (ultimately losing outside contain and opening up the possibility for a fake). They concluded that they would only run the play if Jones lined up on the left side, because that would allow Jon Ryan (kicker) to roll out to his left and throw a pass or run for the first down. If Jones wasn’t on the field they would take a delay of game penalty and kick the field goal.

Gilliam (the tackle turned tight end who caught the touchdown) couldn’t help his excitement when he saw that Jones lined up on his side:

“I broke the huddle like, Please be on my side, please be on my side,” Gilliam says. “And then [Jones] was.”

They made the call, ran the play, and scored 7 points instead of 3. They went on to win the game in overtime which gave them the chance to win their 2nd Super Bowl in 2 years. None of that would have been possible if it wasn’t for the preparation that gave them the confidence and intelligence to run that play at the perfect time.

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The Interception

The Seahawks had the ball 2nd and goal on the Patriots 1-yard line. Their season was slipping away. All the Seahawks had to do was punch the ball in the end zone and they would have taken a 3pt lead with little time left for a comeback. Many teams would have panicked. Many coaches would have called a timeout to regroup. Bill Belichick and his Patriots did neither. They trusted in their prep and put the burden of execution back on the Seahawks.




They knew in that particular situation that the Seahawks would likely run a quick hitter, a Russell Wilson pass on a slant. Here’s what Malcom Butler the Patriots cornerback had to say. “At practice they had that play,” Butler said. “The scout team ran that same play, and I got beat on it. [Belichick] told me, ‘You gotta be on that.’ At that time, memorization came through, and I just jumped the route and made a play. I just did my job.” The difference between a touchdown and a SuperBowl saving interception can be summed up in one word: preparation. Butler was prepared to make the biggest play of his life because his coaching staff but him in a position to do so, he ‘just did his job’.

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Steve Kerr’s Coaching Approach

“You’re the coach, you want to control it. Coaching is not controlling, its guiding. Change is not going to happen by me saying you have to this or you have to do that. It’s like steering a cruise ship, its going to take you a while to get there, but it takes everybody’s participation to get the ship pointed in the right direction. What I try to do, is continue to communicate our vision, and then generally nudge guys along.”

Steve Kerr


When I came across this quote by Steve Kerr, I was struck by the simplicity and brilliance of his words and thought it was a message worth sharing. He has been in the spotlight lately because his Golden State Warriors are off to a league best 36-6 start. Here are few brief ideas I took away from his words…


Coaches Empower Through Action and Non-Action

Somewhat counterintuitively, coaches believe the majority of their influence rests solely on what they say and how they behave towards their players. What Kerr is saying here, is that when we think about coaching as guiding, then our approach gives us the freedom to influence our team through non-action and the absence of words. What you decide not to say and what you decide not to do can be just as powerful as your words and actions. Many coaches focus on empowering or motivating their players by yelling or coercing their players by their words and actions, but Kerr flips this idea on its head and gives us a new way consider empowering players.


Coaching is a Chess Game

Words like, “nudge” and “participation” and “guide” stand in contrast to the way many coaches communicate with their players. Coaches can be tricked into believing that the louder and more forceful they are in making their point the better their players will respond. The best coaches seem to understand that ‘getting the ship pointed in the right direction’ takes an infinite series of minor adjustments over a long period of time. A Coach that embraces the role as a grand chess master maintains perspective in the short term and invests in relationships with his players for the long term.

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Letting Go

Whenever Kerr is interviewed about his team he always reiterates the fact that he has great players who are teachable and willing to learn. Although I’m sure this is true, there is another side to the equation. Kerr treats his players with respect and trust; and in return they give him their attention, willingness to learn, and collective buy-in. Kerr lets go of some of his control and his return on investment returns tenfold. As with many things in life, often the more tightly we try to control it, the more difficult it becomes to see the type of results we are hoping for. Learn from Kerr’s wisdom. Letting go pays off in the long run, would you be willing to relinquish your grip on the reigns to build trust and credibility with your players?

We hope this insight from Steve Kerr resonated with you as strongly as it did with us.

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Killer OBU Plays


Any good coach knows that games can be won or lost on the margins. What are exactly are the margins? Basically, the little things can make all the difference: player rotations, timeouts, substitutions, game prep, scouting, and….OUT OF BOUNDS PLAYS could be the difference between a 1 point win and a devastating loss. The reality is that individually this stuff on the margins is not significant enough to directly lead to a win or a loss, but over the course of an entire game it can have a big impact.

Out of Bounds underneath (OBU) is one specific area of the game that coaches have a high degree of control over. Creative OBU plays can lead directly to scores and will help your team steal a couple of cheap buckets throughout the course of the game. These easy buckets are invaluable and can demoralize an opponent’s psyche.

Unfortunately, a team only gets a limited number of opportunities to sting their opponents with a cleverly designed play. In reality you might have 5-10 chances to score from an OBU possession during a game. The following are 3 killers OBU plays to help push your team over the top. In addition to the OBU play diagrams we will include a description of the responsibilities of each player within the set, as well as counters and other tidbits of valuable information to make sure you get the most out of your OBU opportunities.

We have put together a short E-Book with 2 additional bonus plays and a list of 5 Ways to Improve your Screening. All of this is FREE. Just click here to download the entire PDF.

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The OBU positions are all interchangeable depending on how you want to use your personnel, some coaches may want to target a specific defender, or put players in positions depending on their strengths.


PG – Point Guard (1-man or primary ball handler)

SG – Shooting Guard (2-man)

G – Guard (3-man)

F – Forward (4-man)

C – Center (5-man)


Key: the combination of the free throw lane and free throw circle

Downscreen: when a player (usually a 4 or 5 man) sets a screen facing the baseline for another player (usually a 2 or 3 man) to come off the screen either towards the perimeter or into the lane looking to score.

Backscreen: when a player is facing towards half court and sets a screen for a player diving to the rim. Usually a good backscreen hits the defender in the “back” or on the “blindside” 

Lane: the rectangular area below the free throw line

Perimeter: the area around the 3pt line

Slip: when a player (usually a 4 or 5 man) sets a screen for a teammate but their defender hedges out or helps to cover the player coming off the screen, leaving the screen to “slip” or go to the rim uncovered

Cross-screen: when a player moves across the lane to set a screen (usually this is a player setting a screen for a 4 or 5 man to get inside position)

For a more complete list of terms visit Arete Hoops Glossary of Terms.



Box Box-1

BOX is a simple concept, but incredibly effective if you can be disciplined enough to run the play the right way.

The Guard needs to clear out and the SG should start their movement as the Guard is clearing out to the opposite wing.

All screens in BOX need to be “Head-Hunting” screens, meaning that each player searches for the defender of their teammate instead of looking to scree an area.

That means that regardless of where the defender drifts to on the floor the offensive player needs to find that defender and hit them with a hard screen.


As SG sets a screen for F, C needs to be moving to towards SG to screen SG’s defender to catch them distracted by the screen between SG and F.

SG is the first option coming off the C screen. If C gets the timing right they can often catch SG’s defender paying attention to the screen on F’s man.


Many teams will try to switch the screen between C and SG but this works well for the offense if C rolls strong to the rim keeping the switching defender behind them.

Last option is to fake the ball towards the C/SG screening action and kick the ball out to F in the corner or G on the wing.


Stack Opposite

Stack Opp - 1

The entire premise of Stack Opposite is to get the defense moving to the other side of the floor then using a cutter that counters that movement.

C and SG need to sprint and draw attention from their defenders so that F’s defender gets distracted by the movement of players to the ball-side of the floor.

G should start their cut as if he is following the lead of C and SG, but instead go and set a screen for F.

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The key to the play is for F to make the defender think he is following the other cutters to the ball side of the floor by making a hard step towards the ball.

After F’s hard step he comes off G’s screen for a layup.

Just as in BOX, if the defenders switch the screening action, G will be open rolling to the rim.




Flare is a great play to run against zone or man-to-man because it puts the defense in a position to choose what they want to cover.

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The initial screen between SG and F should be a quick scoring option if F’s defender falls asleep. But the goal of this screen is actually to get SG’s defender out of position to set them up for the next action.

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After SG sets the screen they should run off C’s screen to the corner or baseline for a jumpshot.

If SG sets a good screen for F then his defender should be behind the play and should have trouble fighting over C’s screen.

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PG has the important job of reading the defense to see whether or not SG is open for a shot, or if C’s man has jumped out into the passing lane, opening a slip for C to the rim.

If the defense has collapsed and cut off both of these options, G could be open for a jumper on the wing if PG does a good job of faking the pass to the baseline.



This gives you a good idea of how simple Out of Bounds Plays can convert into easy points for your team during the course of a game. These 4-6 easy points could be the difference in winning and losing close, competitive games. We have put together an entire PDF with 2 Additional plays and a BONUS 5 Tips to Improve your Team’s Screening.

The download is FREE, all you need to do is click the text below, enter your email address and click on the confirmation email and you can download the entire PDF.

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Managing Christmas Break

This article was originally written for the Coaches Weekly publication. You can check them out here.


The Holiday break can be a great tool for your teams growth and development if approached the right way. There are several different schools of thought on the best way to utilise the extended time between game days. Some coaches like to give their players extra time off, others use the break to get in extra practice, and still others focus on giving their players a rest from “basketball activities” instead choosing to focus on strength and conditioning.

From my own experience and by observing other programs throughout the years, I can say this is truly an issue that is never a ‘one size fits all’ approach. That being said, I think there are some valuable principles that can help every coach get the most out of their time off.




Prepare for the Dog Days

The toughest months in a basketball season are always the time immediately following Christmas break. As late December and February roll around, the excitement of the start of the season and the holiday break has inevitably worn off. School is back in session, its cold outside, and players will start to feel the mental and physical fatigue that inevitably comes around the middle of February.

You need to prepare your players for this tough stretch by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your team – and what type of activity, or lack thereof helps them the most. For example, veteran teams with older players might benefit from extended rest and recovery sessions – personally I always enjoyed the extra weight room sessions which prepared my body for the impending grind of the season. For younger teams, you might take the opportunity to use the extra practice time to teach new sets, work on team chemistry, or perfect your various systems.


Revisit the Fundamentals

I think the mid-season break is a great time to sharpen your teams attention and commitment to fundamentals. Depending on how long of a break you have, some coaches will even run a type of mini training camp which starts by hammering home the basics and progresses to more complex practices. This is a great chance to reinforce the foundational pillars on which your team is built. Take the time to teach your players without having to worry about preparing for a game.

As I mentioned before, the degree and manner in which you do this can depend on the makeup of your team. But once you get into conference play it can be difficult to spend a lot of practice time drilling the fundamentals.


Skill Development

In the same way that it can be difficult to find time to commit time to fundamentals, skill development can become an afterthought during the rush of the season. Give players opportunities both in practice and during extended gym hours to work on their game. Schedule an extra skill session once or twice a week to give your players the time to sharpen their skills and get a lot of extra looks at the basket. The extra jumpers, ball-handling, and skill work will pay dividends later on.





Fresh Start

Regardless of your wins and loss record heading into Christmas break it is important to emerge from the time off with a singular mindset of the team’s goals moving forward. Your team should never be more unified or excited to take on the challenge of the second half of the season. It might also be a good idea to have conversations with your key leaders about the expectations for the second half of the season. Whether that means improving on the first half of your season, or continuing your winning ways, your team should be united and excited to take on the challenges ahead