Tom Izzo has been to seven Final Fours – and Charlie Bell helped him get to three of them.
Bell, who played professional basketball for more than a decade, helped the Spartans to the Final Four in three consecutive seasons from 1999 to 2001. The Spartans won it all in 2000 – their first national title since Magic Johnson beat Larry Bird in 1979.
Izzo got back to the Final Four in 2005, 2009, 2010 and – after beating Louisville in overtime this past Sunday – 2015. The Spartans (27-11) face Duke (33-4) this Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET.
How does Izzo keep doing this? The only coaches with more Final Four appearances are John Wooden (12), Mike Krzyzewski (12) and Dean Smith (11).
“It’s just what he do,” Bell said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “He does a great job of preparing guys all season long for this time of year. They play a tough schedule because he wants to get them ready for this part of the season when you’re going to be playing against those type of teams – the Kentucky’s and the Duke’s of the world.”
Just a few weeks ago, the Spartans were 19-10. They had lost at home to Minnesota. In February, they lost at home to Illinois. In December, they lost at home to Texas Southern. Yes, Texas Southern.
And now they’re in the Final Four – as a 7-seed.
“I don’t think nobody really expected it,” Bell said. “Izzo has done a great job of getting them guys ready. And just right now, they’re clicking. They’re playing at a high rate, very high confidence. You can just see right now they got a little bit more pep in their step than they had all season long. They’re playing hard and they’re playing well and they’re playing together. When you go like that, anything can happen.
“Look at UConn last year and the run that they had,” Bell continued. “It’s all about who can get hot and win six games in a row. Sometimes it’s not the best team that wins. It’s who can get hot and who can put it together at the right time. Right now, we’re doing that.”
As Bell can attest, Izzo is a master of taking teams that are not highly regarded and exceeding expectations. In a way, that’s how he recruits. He targets talented players, of course, but being a McDonald’s All-American is not a prerequisite.
“When you got a team that plays hard and they’re well-coached, that’ll beat talent any day,” Bell said. “There’s teams out there that I think are more talented than us. But at the same time, they don’t play as hard as us. They don’t work as hard as us. That’s what Michigan State basketball is built on – hard work, toughness, rebounding. That’s what we do the best, especially this time of year. Defense is one thing that carries you. They always say defense wins championships, and that’s something that we do very well.”