Tom Izzo issued a directive to his Michigan State players.
Only talk about basketball from here out. Leave the other issues to him.
“That’s gonna be it. It’s basketball questions,” Izzo told reporters after practice Wednesday. “I owe it to them — and I mean this strongly — I owe it to them and I owe it to my staff that we’re gonna focus in, because it’s been a lot of distractions. I tried to do it as best as I could for all of you. Never cut off my locker room or anything else. But now, it’s gonna be basketball time. These players, this staff, deserves to focus in on basketball.
“That’s what we’re gonna do and see if we can make this incredible year even more special.”
And the Hall of Fame coach delivered an ornery, passionate defense of himself and his program as his team prepares for the postseason.
The second-ranked Spartans are preparing to head to the world’s largest media market, New York, and the basketball Mecca of Madison Square Garden for the Big Ten tournament. The No. 1 seed MSU (28-3, 16-2 Big Ten) has a double-bye and and opens at noon Friday in the quarterfinals against Thursday’s winner between No. 8 seed Maryland and No. 9 seed Wisconsin.
“It’s been draining on them,” Izzo said of his players. “We haven’t been as sharp as I think we could or should be. And when I start looking at film of what it was like early January, middle of January, there were things that we did a better job of. So I’m either gonna rip my assistant coaches, rip myself or kind of understand that there has been some things that have been tough on them.”
Izzo already has dialed up the intensity to a March level, perhaps beyond previous years, in part due to a number of controversies that have occupied much of the Spartans’ 12-game win streak that began Jan. 19, a little less than a week before things at MSU hit a fever pitch.
First came the Larry Nassar sentencing, followed later that night by the resignation of Lou Anna K. Simon as MSU’s president. Then two days later, on Jan. 26, Mark Hollis resigned as MSU’s athletic director, followed two hours later by an ESPN report detailing allegations of sexual assault and violence against women by Spartan football and men’s basketball players.
More: Ex-MSU AD Mark Hollis slams ESPN report in staff email
“As far as all these allegations, I’m just gonna tell you that I feel very comfortable that we’ve emphatically cooperated with everybody on every search,” Izzo said Wednesday. “Everything we’ve done, I think we’ve appropriately handled it exactly the way we were supposed to handle it at the rules of that time. So that’s where we are there.”
Then Friday, Yahoo! Sports issued two reports linking Miles Bridges and his mother to the ongoing FBI investigation into the corruption of college basketball.
Izzo has not closed his locker room throughout the past month and made Bridges available to reporters Sunday at Wisconsin after he was cleared a day earlier by the NCAA following an investigation by MSU’s compliance office that found a minor violation involving his parents accepting a $40 dinner with an agent last winter.
Izzo said the NCAA “cleared him (Bridges) unequivocally” and MSU does not “have to in any reason, shape or form think that there will be anything else that he has to go through. And I expect him here the rest of the year.”
After Sunday, Izzo gave his team its basketball-only directive.
“I just told them it’s time,” Izzo said. “I let my players talk and did not close my locker room one time. I let them talk for five weeks, and I think they’ve done an unbelievable job. And then Miles talks the other night, and there’s a hair of a mistake and it gets blown up. So we’re gonna stick to what we should stick to. These players deserve that. So they’re not gonna answer anything but basketball questions.
“What people throw at me, I’m a big boy and I gotta handle it. But for them, that’s gonna be their orders. I apologize, but that’s why you came here. You came to ask me questions about basketball.”
A few minutes later, things got a bit contentious. Izzo was later asked by a reporter about the sexual assault allegations, and Izzo started to let out some of his pent-up frustration about the ESPN investigation and reporting.
Reporter: “Do you still plan at any point in the future to address any of these allegations?”
Izzo: “I just addressed them.”
Reporter: “With any degree of specificity?”
Izzo: “Never any specifics. … Because I don’t have — there’s an ongoing investigation going on here, No. 1. No. 2, those of you that think I’m the prosecutor, the chief of police, the president of the university and know all these things — like the NCAA investigation, I had nothing to do with that, zero, OK, nothing — I don’t like the narrative everybody is making of this. And so right now, I don’t plan on addressing any specific things because I’ve already said what I said, and I don’t know anything else.”
Reporter: “Can I just ask you this?”
Izzo: “Probably not.”
Reporter: “So it seems like you’re upset about people sort of piling on a lot ostensibly. So let me just ask you this: Could you take us step by step through what the protocol would be within this program, within the athletic department, in dealing with reports of criminal sexual misconduct, what you’re role in that would be?”
Izzo: “I’m not gonna take you through that right now. But my role on that is so minimal. I mean, we are hands-off now. That goes to other people. I mean, we can just do what we can do, but that thing is decided by the police department, the OIE, all the different things. So I’m not gonna comment on things I’ve already kind of commented on. It wasn’t good enough for some people. Not a lot of people, either, just a very select few. And you know what? I feel comfortable in my own skin. Yeah, one more question.”
Reporter: “There has been I guess some criticism of ESPN and quote-unquote sensational reporting. Are there any specific mistruths, untruths, you would like to dispute about their reporting?”
Izzo: “I don’t know, you tell me.”
Reporter: “I don’t work for ESPN. I’m not the one that claimed that they are sensational. I’m just asking you.”
Izzo: “You read it.”
Reporter: “But you have inside, intimate knowledge of this program I would imagine and how certain things are handled. So I’m asking you, are there any mistruths in anything of that reporting that you would like to dispute right now?”
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