By the time this particular iteration of a scrappy Spartan squad ground into the Sweet Sixteen, fans of MSU and opposing fans alike were exclaiming "IZZO!", only with slightly different intonations (elation and exasperation, respectively). No matter how lackluster their regular season was at times this year, no one should be surprised that an experienced Izzo squad with a few potential NBA prospects could make a run in March. There have been plenty of pieces written by media members across the country about Izzo's genius, so I won't extol his insane value as a tournament coach too much, and really all you need to know is that every freaking recruiting class Izzo's had at MSU has made the Final Four. He's a good coach.
It's not surprising that this team is playing balanced basketball and getting major contributions from their senior leaders in late March, it's surprising that it took them this long to finally start playing to their potential. This team too often looked disjointed and played down to their opponents in the regular season, which doesn't make much sense when your three best players are two seniors and a junior. Alas, everyone started at 0-0 on March 17, so none of that really matters at this point.
The Spartans may have been a little underseeded on the seven line, but middle of the pack B1G teams all got knocked way down the seedline this year. They were paired with a 21-10 Georgia Bulldogs squad who looked every part of a middle-tier power conference at-large team: they had no wins over ranked teams and won a respectable number of games in a relatively weak SEC (one team does not a conference make). The Spartans made work of the Bulldogs, winning 70-63. While the game was never really in doubt, Michigan State did let Georgia hang around in the second half and could have easily won by fifteen. Okay, so they did what they were supposed to.
In their next game against the second seeded Virginia Cavaliers, however, they did something they weren't supposed to: they beat the Wahoos 60-54 in an absolute trash fight of a game. State held Virginia to 18 (!) points in the first half, pretty much ensuring they could maintain their way to victory against a Virginia squad whose offense was apparently inspired by a reboot of Hoosiers directed by Vinny Del Negro. There's something beautiful about watching your team win ugly, but for the rest of us this game will serve, years down the road, as a reminder that watching Big Ten Network classic replays at four in the morning is a bad life decision and that maybe it's time to retake the LSATS.
The Spartans out-Virginiaed Virginia in this game, which, I think, was a sign that this team was ready to make a run.The Cavailers were a really good team this year and the Spartans made them look silly. Denzel Valentine only scored four points, but Travis Trice's performance was a sign of the Trice show that was awaiting. He scored 23, hit 4 of 8 threes (including a couple ridiculous top of the key bombs to keep Virginia at arm's length for the entire second half). Branden Dawson looked like the most athletic player on the floor, breaking out a few times in transition for explosive dunks. That was the difference between these two teams. Essentially, when they want to, Michigan State can run the floor and get easy looks.
This was when the annual "oh yeah, Tom Izzo coaches this team and I had them going out in the second round because I have no sense of history" collective thought began to creep into fans heads (I had them losing to Virginia, as well because I also have no sense of history).
Awaiting State after their win over Virginia were the Oklahoma Sooners, a very different beast from the grind it out Cavaliers. Oklahoma averaged 71 points a game this year and star Buddy Hield looked to cause some mismatches and attack either Valentine or Dawson. The Spartans fell behind by double digits in the opening throes of the gameand the Sooners looked too quick for the Spartans. Well, right when it looked like the Spartans were going to get run out of the gym (or as they must call it, their cue), they methodically clawed back: Trice and Valentine hit a few threes, Dawson got out in transition and all of the sudden the Spartans were down only four at halftime.
The two teams traded punches at the beginning of the second half, but the combo of Trice and Valentine proved to be too much: Trice finished with 23 points and Valentine finished with 18 points, seven boards, and two assists. Trice was an assassin from deep late in the game, going four of nine and and hitting another couple from Jimmer range. He's absolutely been the linchpin of their tournament run, and it's always kind of fun to see a senior go absolutely out of his mind in the tournament. The rest of the team, for their part, throttled a usually high-octane Oklahoma offensive attack, holding them to just 58 points.
Then the Spartans had the chance to exact revenge on the Pitino clan for an overtime loss to the younger Pitino and Minnesota in February (not really sure if this was on their minds leading up to the game, but I like to think Izzo has a Wire style tack-board in his office so he can keep track of all those who have wronged him).
Much like the Virginia game, this one was going to be physical and high energy, but also low tempo and probably a little difficult to watch. Louisville star Montrezl Harrell made some comments before the game about Dawson not being able to match his energy for an entire game, and I know Harrell is a monster, but it was probably not a great idea to goad the Spartans in any way (on to the tack-board you go, Montrezl!). Dawson finished with nine points, eleven boards, and four blocks. Harrell, for his part, finished with sixteen and nine. Watching those two battle was probably the most fun part of the game.
State was, again, down at halftime, this time by eight. They allowed 40 points to a Louisville team not exactly known for its offense and looked a little out of sorts themselves. Much like in the Virginia game, though, the Spartans came out and essentially choked the Cardinals out, allowing 25 points and scoring just enough to force the game into OT. The final frame was all Spartans and they took the game 76-70.
Another Final Four, another Spartans appearance. Don't freak out when they go into halftime against Duke trailing.