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Michigan State basketball: The importance of Tom Izzo’s Flint pipeline

The Flint pipeline has been huge for MSU hoops.

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Michigan State basketball
© Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tom Izzo developed a Flint pipeline for Michigan State basketball when other big-time coaches wouldn’t. And it paid off.

In 1995, a relatively unknown man from the modest town of Iron Mountain, Mich., would be named the head coach of Michigan State basketball.

That man is now Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo.

In Izzo’s first two seasons after taking over from national champion coach Jud Heathcote, he strung together records of 16-16 and 17-12, respectively. Both seasons ended the same: Second-round NIT exits.

Things changed for Izzo, and in a hurry. In his third year, Izzo’s Spartans would go 22-8 with a Sweet 16 appearance. Year 3 was no fluke. Michigan State would only build on its success, eventually leading to a 2000 National Championship.

So what changed for Izzo and Michigan State basketball? The answer is quite simple.

Flint happened.

Flint, Mich., was an untapped area full of potential regarding elite athletes. Izzo was one of the first power conference coaches to heavily target the area in his recruiting efforts. The trajectory of the team turned on a dime as Izzo was able to establish a recruiting pipeline in Flint.

Izzo’s first big-time recruit in 1995 was Flint native Antonio Smith whose recruitment had a domino effect throughout the city. The new and improved Spartans were famously spearheaded by a group called “The Flintstones.” Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, and Antonio Smith were key contributors in Michigan State’s first Sweet 16 run under Izzo. All four players were Flint natives. It’s extremely rare to have that many players on the same team from the same community. The trio of Cleaves, Peterson, and Bell would lead MSU to its second national title.

Izzo has gone on to make 25 consecutive March Madness appearances, eight Final Four trips, win 10 regular-season Big Ten titles, and win a national championship. Many of these teams included players from Flint.

The list of players Izzo has landed from Flint includes:

Antonio Smith
Morris Peterson
Charlie Bell
Mateen Cleaves
Kelvin Torbert
Anthony Hamo
Tim Bograkos
Marquise Gray
Miles Bridges

Izzo has been coaching long enough that he’s now reaping the rewards of this recruiting pipeline he’s created.

As great as the pipeline has been, Michigan State has also missed on some key players from Flint as well. Tom Izzo has publicly lamented not landing Monte Morris. Michigan State also had an opportunity to go after Beecher Buccaneer, Keyon Menifield, and more.

The state championship Beecher Buccaneers are now being coached by former Spartan and Flint native Marquise Gray. With a Spartan at the helm, there’s reason to believe this pipeline will continue. Michigan State has already extended an offer to Flint native and 2025 prospect Trey McKenney who has received multiple offers from power conference schools and his interest will only increase as he continues to show elite potential.

As a Flint native myself, this pipeline is the primary reason I became a Michigan State fan. I remember the pandemonium in the city when the Flintstones were rolling. I remember what it was like when Tom Izzo would show up at a high school basketball game. For a long time, it felt like kids in Flint were unseen. With Izzo developing such great relationships in the community, it made every kid practice that much harder. You had a thought in the back of your mind that Izzo could pull up at any time and watch you play. Not many programs were willing to show up to Flint on a regular basis. Izzo’s willingness to do so created hope for basketball players throughout the city.

This pipeline has also helped shape Izzo and his legacy. Had Izzo failed to land Antonio Smith, there’s no telling how things would’ve played out. If Izzo didn’t begin seeing success in his third season in part due to his Flint players, how patient would the fanbase have been with his performance? How would the legacy of Izzo change if the Flintstones never came?

The fanbase will wait and see whether or not the pipeline continues with McKenney but his recruitment is proof that the Flint pipeline is still alive.

Flint will forever play a large role in the legacy of Tom Izzo. Any conversations that are had in the future about the greatness of Izzo will also in essence talking about the greatness of Flint. The two will be forever linked.

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