Michigan State's men's basketball team had moved into a $1.3 million locker room in November 2007. Isaiah Dahlman was a sophomore and among the Spartans dazzled by the new surroundings.

"We were just walking around saying, 'Look at this; it has to be one of the best locker rooms in the country,' " Dahlman said.

And then came the first game -- an 85-82, double-overtime loss to Division II Grand Valley State in an exhibition -- and the Spartans were evicted.

"Coach [Tom] Izzo came in and said, 'Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson and Alan Anderson -- and Magic Johnson -- put in all that work so Michigan State could have a place like this, and that's how you play,' " Dahlman said. "He said, 'You guys don't deserve this locker room,' and threw us out.

"We had to go to the refs and ask them to hurry, because the players -- all of us -- had to crowd into their room to get dressed."

How large was that locker room? "Not as big as what we had at Braham High School," he said. "It took a few days of hard practice to earn our way back into the new locker room."

Dahlman was a much-sought player at Braham. One reason he chose MSU was Izzo's "toughness" during the recruiting process.

"He showed up for one of my football games," Dahlman said. "It was about minus-10 windchill in Braham. He borrowed a spring jacket from someone, and stood on the sideline and watched the whole game."

Dahlman started eight games and averaged 15 minutes as a freshman. A new group of players cost him most of his playing time as a sophomore. Izzo said he would understand if Isaiah transferred.

"From the time I was a little kid, I dreamed of being in the Final Four," Dahlman said. "And I looked at the coach, looked at our players, and felt the best chance for that was for me to stay at Michigan State."

The Spartans made it in 2009 and 2010 -- losing first to North Carolina in the title game, then to Butler in the semifinals. Dahlman was named as one of four co-captains as a little-used senior. Izzo referred to him as "the ultimate Spartan."

Alan Anderson went to Michigan State from DeLaSalle High in Minneapolis. He was the MVP of another Final Four team in 2005.

Asked what has made Izzo a coach capable of taking his team to six Final Fours in the past 13 seasons, Anderson responded:

"He is every bit what the word 'leader' means. What gives him an advantage is he does all his work early -- whether it's for the next game, the tournament, the next whatever, he's always prepared. And his preparation is like no other.

"Also, he's going to stick with what Michigan State in known for: defense, rebounding and always playing like your back is against the wall."

The Spartans limped into a 14th consecutive NCAA tournament last year and lost in the first round to UCLA. They entered this season unrated, and opened with losses to North Carolina (67-55) and Duke (74-69).

On Wednesday night, Michigan State couldn't get out of its own way for over 30 minutes, then shut down the Gophers down the stretch for a 66-61 victory at Williams Arena. The Spartans have won six in a row, lead the Big Ten at 12-3 (23-5 overall) and are rated sixth by the Associated Press.

"You get a big win and [Izzo] comes in the locker room and says, 'You played well, and this is what we have to change to win the next game,' " Dahlman said. "On the plane ride home, he's in the back with a couple of computers, watching our game, watching the next opponent's game. By the time you land, he's almost ready with his plan for the next game.

"He's very, very driven. He takes so such pride in Michigan State that if anything goes wrong with the program, he puts all the blame on himself. He has built this into an elite program with blue-collar players. And he's hellbent to avoid the one slip-up, the one awful year ... to make sure that never happens."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com