Why do certain teams in the Big Ten Conference — like the Michigan State Spartans and Ohio State Buckeyes — succeed in the NCAA tournament consistently while others seem to always fade away after the first weekend of madness? They blend brains and brawn with effort at the right time.
Michigan State and Ohio State are the two Big Ten schools that go deeper into March than cloudy, windy, 40-degree days because they can win fast and slow, they can win inside and out and they can win by being balanced or by relying on one star player.
It always seems that Michigan State and Ohio State routinely whip up a powerful blend at the right time of the year. It helps that Tom Izzo looks like/is a gremlin and Thad Matta is a Gargamel clone, both already are experienced in wizardry based on their DNA.
It helps that Izzo learned from Jud Heathcote and Matta spent six seasons as a full-time assistant coach at three different universities, helping his squads compile a composite 128–58 (.688) record and make six postseason tournament appearances. What else in their DNA makes their teams peak in March?
In reality, all it takes in this era is one or two players to establish a school as a powerhouse for an extended period of time, as long as the school is a law-abiding member of one of the “Big Five” conferences (yes, I’m trolling the American Athletic Conference here) or are either the Gonzaga Bulldogs or Butler Bulldogs.
The VCU Rams haven’t sustained quite enough success to eat at the adult table, and I hope they don’t because I want Shaka Smart to coach the Wisconsin Badgers after Bo Ryan retires. That’s another story.
MSU and OSU are powerhouses that were built on transcendent stars. Heathcote had Magic Johnson and Izzo brought in Mateen Cleaves in his first class. Matta’s first full class was Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook and David Lighty. They now get top recruits because of their history (MSU) and resources/sheer institutional girth (OSU).
In March, most teams have talented players that make shots and defend, but to be special (aka in the Elite Eight), teams must also have the added elements of killer ability and the instinct to use it, which comes from developing their game to the point where they embrace the spotlight the first time it is pointed on them. Michigan State and Ohio State are the only two Big Ten teams that have proven that they belong in the spotlight in the past 15 years.
Out of all the teams that consistently end up in the Elite Eight and beyond, only the Syracuse Orange sticks to one system. Michigan State, Ohio State, Kansas, Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina and the Duke have great coaches and players, but their systems will vary on a yearly basis. These coaches and their players are willing to play man-to-man and zone; they have strong set plays in the half-court and from out of bounds.
Most importantly, these schools have coaches and players that are mentally tough because they have learned to feed off each other. As a result, they are so in sync that they can adapt their game plans to any situation.
Player development and schematic experimentation continually occur throughout the year at top basketball schools. The coaches and players understand how to save their energy throughout the season while still winning a lot of games. At Michigan State and Ohio State, that energy/effort is what sets them apart from the rest of the Big Ten in the tournament, and both Tom Izzo and Thad Matta know it.
They spend all season developing the psyches of their players and unleash them during March Madness.