But a home loss to Michigan State's biggest rival, with first place on the line? That was painful enough, and Izzo took a softer approach.
"In the 30 years I've been here, I've never been prouder of a team," he said.
The third-ranked Spartans finally ran out of answers down the stretch, losing 80-75 to 21st-ranked Michigan on Saturday night in a matchup of two teams that have overcome major injuries this season. Nik Stauskas made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:12 left and finished with 19 points for the Wolverines.
Michigan (15-4, 7-0 Big Ten) has won nine in a row, all without star big man Mitch McGary, who is out indefinitely because of a back injury. Michigan State (18-2, 7-1) was without Adreian Payne (sprained right foot) and Branden Dawson (broken right hand).
Gary Harris scored a career-high 27 points for Michigan State and Keith Appling added 10 points and 10 assists.
"Keith Appling—I can't tell you how much that kid sucked it up," Izzo said. "If Gary Harris isn't the best player at both ends of the court in the league, then God bless whoever is."
But right now, it's Michigan that sits atop the Big Ten. The Wolverines went on a 10-0 run late in the game to take control and held on to win for just the second time in 15 games at the Breslin Center. Michigan went 11 of 19 from 3-point range, and it was the outside shooting that kept the Spartans from pulling away during what was generally a strong first half for Michigan State.
The Spartans led 36-30 at halftime before giving up 50 points in the second.
"You're not going to beat too many teams when they shoot that way," Harris said. "They did a good job. And we've got to shoot better at the line."
Michigan went 23 of 27 on free throws in the second half, and 25 of 30 for the game. Michigan State was 16 of 23 on the night.
Michigan State freshman Alvin Ellis scored a season-high 12 points, and his 3-pointer gave the Spartans a 57-55 lead with 6:19 to go. Michigan State led 60-58 with 4:01 to play, and after Michigan's Glenn Robinson III was fouled, Wolverines coach John Beilein was apparently still upset over something that had happened previously—and Stauskas actually held the incensed coach back from officials.
"That's a great step in his leadership," Beilein said.
Michigan scored the next 10 points after that. Robinson made both free throws to tie it, and Stauskas followed with a 3-pointer. Then Walton's three-point play in transition made it 66-60.
Harris kept shooting until the end, but the Wolverines wouldn't let up. Appling finished 3 of 11 while trying to play through wrist and back problems.
"I can't even shoot. I couldn't participate in any shooting drills in shootaround," Appling said. "But when I step on the basketball court, that's not something I can use when we don't come up with a victory. To me, that's a cop-out."
The Spartans only turned the ball over five times, equaling their fewest since at least the 1996-97 season.
Michigan State has now lost five of the seven meetings with Michigan. The teams play again Feb. 23 in Ann Arbor, when the Spartans hope to be healthier.
"This gives us a little bit of confidence," said Michigan State's Matt Costello, who had nine points and nine rebounds. "We were down two of our best players and played pretty well against them. We just have to regroup and tear up the rest of the Big Ten."
Easier said than done. Not only does Michigan State have to play at Michigan, but the Spartans also have road games at Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State still to come.
"I had some guys that I questioned whether I'd want to go to war with some of them," Izzo said. "I'd go to war with more of them today."