The Best Of Mr. March: Ranking Tom Izzo’s Final Four Teams

Written By Nolan Bianchi on April 1, 2022 - Last Updated on May 13, 2022
Cassius Winston and Tim Izzo

The University of Michigan women’s basketball team was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament on Monday night in a 62-50 loss to Louisville, and with that, the state of Michigan’s college basketball season was over.

But we’ve still got March Madness fever over here at PlayMichigan.

There have been happier times for basketball fans in the state, and we even have a man whose nickname came from his multiple March successes. Whether you believe Mr. March still applies to Tom Izzo or not, it’s undeniable that his eight Final Fours over a 20 year span is an incredible accomplishment, and put Michigan State among the country’s most respected programs.

So, in the spirit of this weekend’s Final Four featuring an all-blue-blood cast, we’re ranking the most memorable runs to the Final Four by an Izzo-coached Michigan State team. 

8. 2001 

Result: Lost in Final Four to No. 2 Arizona

Tournament seed: 1

Future NBA players: Jason Richardson, Charlie Bell, Zach Randolph

Entering the tournament as a 1-seed for the third year in a row, Izzo’s Spartans had officially established themselves as what the kids call “a problem.” They’d also earned a share of the Big Ten title for the fourth consecutive season.

Ultimately, Michigan State was done in by an Arizona squad that included the likes of future NBA stars Gilbert Arenas and Richard Jefferson. While the 80-61 loss definitely hurt in the moment, there’s always a little bit of long-term relief in knowing you weren’t all that close to winning that game. And let’s be honest, better to lose to Arizona than face the wrath of Duke in the national title game.

7. 2010

Result: Lost in Final Four to No. 5 Butler

Tournament seed: 5

Future NBA players: Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green

The Spartans made it back to the Final Four a year after falling to North Carolina as a 5-seed, and much like the 2005 team, one can assume that they were simply thrilled to make it back.

Pushing it further down on this list was the fact that they lost to a team of destiny (or one that appeared to be, anyway), and the championship game that followed was nothing short of an instant classic as Gordon Hayward’s last-second buzzer beater sailed off the backboard, rim and to the hardwood as Coach K’s Duke squad celebrated yet another national title.

6. 2005

Result: Lost in Final Four to No. 1 North Carolina

Tournament seed: 5

Future NBA players: Maurice Ager, Alan Anderson, Paul Davis, Shannon Brown

After a four-year hiatus from the Final Four, Michigan State made its triumphant return with its most unlikely squad so far. And the list of teams they ran through to reach the Final Four is nothing short of impressive, which saves this run from a last-place ranking. They blew past No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Kentucky before falling to North Carolina, 81-71, in the Final Four.

5. 2015

Result: Lost in Final Four to No. 1 Duke

Tournament seed: 7

Future NBA players: Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello

This Final Four season comes with a little bit of bittersweetness to it. On the one hand, Izzo taking the Spartans to a Final Four as a 7-seed is nothing short of memorable.

On the other hand, it ended with a 20-point loss to Duke — a reminder that the Spartans probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. So while knocking off the No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds en route to a Final Four appearance deserves to be remembered fondly, ranking it firmly in the middle here seems like the right move.

4. 1999

Result: Lost in Final Four to No. 1 Duke

Tournament seed: 1

Future NBA players: Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell

In his fourth year as head coach, Tom Izzo led Michigan State to the Final Four for just the third time in program history and first time since 1979, when Magic Johnson led the Spartans to a national title.

While it didn’t end in a title game appearance, this run from the No. 1-seed Spartans was not only a commendable effort for a program that was starting its era as a blue blood, but it also helped the Spartans reach a program-record 33 wins, which still stands today.

3. 2009

Result: Lost national championship to No. 1 North Carolina

Tournament seed: 2

Future NBA players: Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green

In this season, the NCAA threw a new wrinkle in their Final Four stadium site requirements, mandating that they now must hold a minimum of 70,000 fans. The site: Detroit’s Ford Field.

With the knowledge they could win a championship in their home state, this run by the Spartans ranks high as one of the most memorable runs by an Izzo team. Michigan State knocked off No. 1 seeds in back-to-back games (including a wild win over a UConn squad headlined by Hasheem Thabeet in the Final Four at Ford Field).

Unfortunately, outside of that UConn game, Ford Field had been a nightmare setting for Michigan State. They’d lost to North Carolina in “BasketBowl II” at Ford Field earlier that season, 98-63, and would fall to the Tyler Hansbrough-led Tarheels again in the championship game, this time by 19 points.

2. 2019

Result: Lost in Final Four to No. 3 Texas Tech

Tournament seed: 2

Future NBA players: Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry

After reaching the Final Four in 2015, Michigan State failed to make it out of the first weekend for three straight seasons and many had wondered whether Izzo was still the man for the job after a stubborn deployment of Jaren Jackson Jr. in a loss to No. 11 Syracuse — at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, no less — and a 15- over 2-seed upset loss to Middle Tennessee just two years before that.

But this run? This run meant as much as it could be for a team that didn’t even reach the national title. Michigan State beat a Duke team that was often heralded as the best Blue Devil team ever with future No. 1 pick Zion Williamson leading the charge. And then, Michigan State’s Kenny Goins brought Duke to its knees with a 3-pointer in Williamson’s face that will live on in Michigan State lore forever.

1. 2000 

Result: Won national championship over No. 5 Florida

Tournament seed: 1

Future NBA players: Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Mateen Cleaves, Jason Richardson

In Izzo’s second trip to a Final Four, the man we’d come to know as Mr. March got the job done — and to be honest, it never really looked to be in doubt.

The Spartans ran through their tournament schedule that year, picking up all of their wins by double digits including the 89-76 victory over Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators in the national title game. 

Photo by Associated Press File Photo
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Nolan Bianchi

Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit-based freelance journalist covering the Lions, Red Wings and everything in between. He is the former host of the Locked On Red Wings hockey podcast, still collects sports cards, is a published playwright and is a harsh critic of sandwiches.

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