ST. LOUIS - Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo tries to deflect praise away from himself when he is cited as the source of Michigan State's success during 13 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Izzo deserves all of credit he receives and probably more for getting Michigan State to six Final Fours during the last 12 seasons. But a good deal of credit is also due to Michigan State's top-notch assistant coaches Mark Montgomery, Dwayne Stephens, and Mike Garland.
Montgomery, who is as deserving of a quality head coaching job as any other D-1 assistant coach in America, has coached at Central Michigan. But working as an assistant coach at anywhere but Michigan State would be far less rewarding.
"We put in a lot of hours," said Montgomery, "a lot of hours recruiting, scouting, spending time with the guys. It is so rewarding. This is why I came back to Michigan State to coach in Final Fours."
For Stephens, a teammate of Montgomery's at Michigan State during their playing days, nothing is as satisfying as seeing the Spartans develop the bond and chemistry that was missing for most of the season.
"Any time you get to a Final Four it is rewarding," explained Stephens, whom Izzo believes would also make a good Division 1 head coach. "But seeing these guys come together they way they have, that is the most rewarding thing for me. To watch them come together and grow and make this run that we have."
The Spartans also have a good chemistry on their staff. Montgomery has been on staff at Michigan State for the last nine years after playing a key role in building the Central Michigan University team that went to the Sweet 16 with Mike Manciel and Kris Kaman. Stephens has been on Izzo's staff for seven seasons after spending four years as an assistant coach at Marquette under Tom Crean. Stephens coached at Oakland prior to Marquette.
"We are pushing the right buttons and players are making the right reads and right plays at the right time," explained Stephens. "Day-Day and Raymar and Korie has done an unbelievable job filling in for Kalin (Lucas). It has truly been a team effort."
All of Michigan State's coaches had a role in recruiting Korie Lucious to East Lansing. But Stephens has had the longest relationship with Lucious. And as the primary recruiter of the diminutive point guard from Milwaukee, Stephens is thrilled with the way that the sophomore has responded to the challenge of filling Lucas' shoes.
"Korie has had to grow up a little bit this year," said Stephens. "He has hung in there and he has done a great job of filling in for Kalin. We just want to make sure we can keep it rolling. But you have to give the kid credit because he really stepped up and matured to play the way coach Izzo wants him to play."
Part of maturing as a player at Michigan State is executing the game plan, which is sometimes difficult to do if things are not playing out the way they should. But each of Michigan State's players showed trust in their coaches even when the Spartans' tactic of taking away the interior played a role in Tennessee's hot start.
"We know that our coaches are going to put us in the best possible situation to succeed," said junior wing Chris Allen. "There isn't a player on our team that doesn't believe that if we execute the game plan the way coach wants us to we will win the game."
When Tennessee hit their first six shots and made nearly two-thirds of the 3-point shot attempts in the first half, there was no panic from the Spartans.
"It would have been very easy for the guys to get frustrated with them hitting the threes and run out on them," said Stephens, "But then driving lanes open up. Our game plan was to stay in and shrink the court. We didn't give them very many easy baskets, a couple of lobs but other than that they didn't get the easy baskets. And I think that was the difference."
VIDEO: MONTGOMERY AND STEPHENS ON LATEST FINAL FOUR RUN
Click the links below to hear what Montgomery and Stephens had to say about their team's latest Final Four run.