EAST LANSING - Anyone who's spent a decent amount of time around the Breslin Center, knows there are a couple general rules of thumb:
Play defense and rebound.
Don't walk on the 'S'.
It's what he says, not how he says it.
The 'he', of course, is Michigan State basketball coachTom Izzo. And the sooner you learn this rule, the easier it will be to accept the teaching points from a coach who's been to six Final Fours in the last 13 years.
That doesn't mean it's a one-way street. While Izzo may be known for intense practices and a U.P. vernacular, his greatest players are known for their ability to fight back. A lot of coaches are famous for their R-rated sound bites, but very few allow their players a rebuttal. Almost no one encourages it. Tom Izzo enjoys it. He respects it.
But he's done wrestled an alligator and tussled with a whale. He's done handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail.
"I think they know though," Izzo clarified. "The barkin' back? You better have a bag full of the goods, I'll tell you that right now, because it'll get challenged light-quick.
"I think for the most part, I've been a little different in that area. But I constantly tell them, 'You walk in this office any day you want, and you say whatever you want. And the more you say, the bigger the bag of goodies you better have behind you. It better be full if you want to say a lot, because I got film, I got assistant coaches, and I got some experience.'"
Last Wednesday against Minnesota, during his 400th win, Izzo had some words for freshman Branden Dawson. Dawson fought back. It wasn't a sign of problems at the Berkowitz, it was a rite of passage.
Dawson's not going to win that fight, at least not yet. Few of them have. For Izzo,it's the emotion behind it that shows you have what he's looking for (even if his facial expression isn't screaming 'I appreciate you').
"If you're going to be a tough, competitive," Izzo said. "If I want you to bite the ground and get dirty, all those things ... It's like a football player: You're trying to get them to a mentality of being half-crazy. That's what you have to do. Now I know the good ones will say 'Well then he's got to learn to keep that within', and you do.
"I don't always do a great job of it, and I'm in my 50s, so you can imagine sometimes an 18 or 20-year-old. There's lines that I don't allow to be crossed, but sometimes when a guy's barking back at ya and saying 'I did that! I did that!', I like it because he must have some passion for what he's talking about.
And I know it's a little backwards way, and a lot of people don't adhere to it.
"But you know what? I've had better players than Dawson bark back a little bit. That's the one area I don't let myself get bent out of shape on and for the most part, it hasn't hurt me, it's kind of helped me."
Mateen has the heavyweight championship belt. Travis Walton has a few trophies. DayDay has earned his keep. Going toe-to-toe with Izzo may put you in the doghouse, but at least you'll have elite company.
"Everybody has their own way of getting something across," Izzo said. "You know sometimes I'm just saying 'Would you get the ball inside?', and maybe I choose three different words and a different look, but I'm really saying, 'Would you get the ball inside?' or 'Would you quit turning the ball over?'. I could say, 'Would you please quit turning the ball over?'. I could say, 'Would you please quit turning the ball over ...blum blum blum blum blum, would you quit turning the ball over?'. It all means the same. That's why they got to get to know you; you got to get to know them.
"Mateen, as I said, I think I taught him a few things but he probably taught me more than I taught him on how to deal with people. You got to remember: We ALL come from the same place, and we all come from a completely different place. We're all raised a little differently. And that's what I constantly fight with my guys. We're all raised differently and that's OK, but you have to do certain things certain ways to be really successful. And yet, there's a way of getting there.
"Nix? Could've gave up on Nix. A lot of people thought I should have. Could've gave up on Morris. Some people thought we should have. They could've gave up on me. But you know, for the most part, just about at a 98 percent clip, maybe even higher - I've gotten some letters and cards from A FEW that have left that look at it a little differently once they're gone - but for the most part it's worked out pretty good."