Being ranked No. 1 for now six weeks over the course of 20 years as Michigan State’s coach probably isn’t the first thing Tom Izzo would list on his resume.
That’s not just because it doesn’t seem all that impressive, but also because his teams have reached the Final Four seven times, and his only national championship came in a season the Spartans never held the top ranking.
Simply put, he’s not putting too much stock into Michigan State being the top-ranked team heading into Wednesday night’s visit from Maryland-Eastern Shore.
The Spartans (9-0) are off to their best start since winning their first 12 in 2000-01 – when they were No. 1 for two weeks – have victories over ranked foes Kansas, Louisville and dealt current No. 15 Providence its only loss. Four of their wins have been at neutral sites, three coming in California en route to the DirecTV Wooden Legacy title.
Izzo has been impressed with how his squad has handled the success, but he also realizes that being voted the nation’s top team this early doesn’t mean much when considering long-term goals.
The last time the Spartans were ranked No. 1 in 2013-14, they lost at home to an unranked North Carolina team and fell from the top spot after three weeks. The ascended from the No. 3 spot this time after Kentucky and Maryland both lost.
"Do I think we’re the best team in the country right now? No, I don’t," Izzo said. "Do I think there’s anyone head and shoulders better than us? No, I don’t. What I hope my team does is appreciate the work we put in getting where we are and building on it."
He also explained that Michigan State’s biggest asset isn’t its talent, but how well his players are working as a unit. The Spartans are assisting on 78.7 percent of their baskets to lead the nation, and Denzel Valentine is averaging 7.9 assists to rank fourth in the country.
Valentine also is pouring in 19.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Bryn Forbes has been a nice complement, averaging 17.3 points over his last three and shooting 49.0 percent from 3-point range on the season.
"We’ve got the best chemistry that’s as good as anyone in the country, and I feel comfortable saying that," Izzo said. "I’m a lucky coach right now, but one loss and that can change. Losses are the ultimate adversity."
It doesn’t appear the Spartans will suffer their first defeat in this contest. Maryland-Eastern Shore enters at 1-7 with an 0-2 mark in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play after falling 80-74 to North Carolina A&T on Monday.
Devin Martin finished with 14 points, and Dominique Elliott added 13 and 11 rebounds.
MESU has been outrebounded five times, and it will be in for a tough test in trying to keep Michigan State off the boards. The Spartans rank third in the nation with a plus-17.6 rebound differential per game.
Michigan State’s top ranking likely won’t be threatened much in this contest, but that could change Saturday when Florida comes to East Lansing. The 2000 national championship team which defeated the Gators in the NCAA Tournament title game will be honored during that game, an event Izzo hopes serves as a message to his team that the No. 1 spot means nothing unless Spartans live up to it.
"I still think we have a lot of room to grow," Izzo said. "I’m looking forward now to can we get better instead of maybe plateauing."