Michigan State's basketball history isn't quite as illustrious as some of their B1G brethren when it comes to the early days of competition. They don't own any pre-NCAA tournament championships like Purdue, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and others. Nor can they flaunt that they were one of the first NCAA tournament champions as the Badgers and Hoosiers do. In fact, they rank only seventh in basketball regular season B1G championships. All of this can be partially explained by the fact that the Michigan State Spartans didn't join the conference until 1950, thus limiting their opportunities.
Once they did join though, it didn't take long for them to reach their first Final Four in 1957. Led by head coach Forrest Anderson, the Spartans won the Big Ten regular season and made it past Notre Dame and Kentucky before falling in triple overtime to North Carolina. MSU would also lose the 3rd-place game to San Francisco, while UNC would actually win another triple overtime game against Kansas in the championship.
It would be another 22 years before Michigan State would return to the Final Four. After falling in the Elite Eight in 1978, the Spartans returned to the NCAA Tournament led by a sophomore point guard known simply as 'Magic'. Coach Jud Heathcote's team was a #2-seed and topped #1-seed Notre Dame in the Elite Eight before destroying 9-seeded Penn in the national semifinal. This set up a game against undefeated Indiana State and Larry Bird. MSU would go on to win 75-64 in the most-watched college basketball game ever. The game would be the first in what would become one of the greatest individual rivalries in sports.
Heathcote would never again reach the Final Four, but did have some other success before stepping down after the 1994-95 season. An assistant coach named Tom Izzo replaced his mentor, and the rest, as they say, is history...
But let's talk about it anyway. Izzo's first Final Four was in 1999, with a team led by All-American Mateen Cleaves, then a junior. They made it as a #1-seed, beating Kentucky in the regional final before losing to Duke in the nation semifinal. Cleaves and the "Flint-stones" would return to the Final Four the following year, and this time they would take home the hardware. They topped 8-seeded Wisconsin for the fourth time that season in the semifinal, before besting #5-seed Florida in the championship, 89-76. That victory in Indianapolis, would be the last time a B1G team would win the NCAA Tournament (Maryland doesn't count).
In 2001, MSU would return yet again, this time behind Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph. However, they would lose to 2-seeded Arizona in the semifinal. The Spartans would not return to the Final Four again unitl 2005. In that year, Izzo led a #5-seed team that had zero first team all-conference players past Kentucky in the Elite Eight, before losing to eventual champion North Carolina and Sean May.
After another four year absence, Izzo and his team returned to the Final Four yet again in 2009. Led by Kalin Lucas, the Spartans would beat a #1-seed in the Elite Eight (Louisville) and the semifinal (UConn) to earn a rematch of a loss in that season's B1G/ACC Challenge. MSU had lost to North Carolina 98-63 at Ford Field earlier in the season, but they earned a second chance and a virtual home game in the NCAA championship game. Unfortunately, Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson were too much to overcome and Michigan State fell 89-72. The Spartans returned the following season, despite losing Lucas to an ACL-injury in the second round. Durrell Summers led MSU to an Elite Eight victory over Tennessee, but after reaching Indianapolis, Izzo's team would lose to the native Butler Bulldogs in the national semifinal.
This season marks Michigan State's ninth appearance in the Final Four, the second most of any B1G school. They are now one behind Ohio State and one ahead of Indiana. Michigan State's two NCAA National Championships are also the second-highest in conference history. Can Izzo and these underdog Spartans add a third? Time will tell.