Taking a quick break from our MLB Preview (Part four will be posted on Opening day) there happens to be a certain Final Four this weekend and a candidate for best feel good story of the year, the Michigan State Spartans.
Of course they are here. Of course he led them. In true Michigan State fashion, the Spartans are back where they have no business being. But why are we still surprised?
We know by now that this is what they do. In this same month. Their soon to be Hall of Fame coach has now made the grueling journey to the Final Four for his 7th time (first time since 2010). His 3rd time doing it with a team that is seeded 5 or higher, something no other coach can say. Year-after-year, March-after-March, MSU continues to redefine March Madness. Some years they are the favorite, others (like this 7th seeded team) they are not. But they continue to survive in a survivor-takes-all-tournament. Sweet 16’s, Elite 8’s and Final Four’s. Let’s stopping asking why, and start asking how.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been a kool-aid drinker of Michigan State and Tom Izzo for some time now. I applied and seriously thought about attending the school, I’d be lying if MSU basketball didn’t add a little fuel to the fire when it came to making a decision. Each year I fill out my bracket, I take a long hard look at the Spartans and can never not pick them. No matter the seed, the difficulty of the region they play in, they end up in my Elite 8, Final Four and many cases, are my champion.
But not this season, ironically enough. I had them in my Elite 8, believing that was more than just a “stretch” and was just again falling into my typical bias towards MSU come tournament time. Last season in many ways was supposed to be Sparty’s year. They had smooth shooter Gary Harris, experienced PG Keith Appaling and the toughness of Adrien Payne down low along with the most heart-felt stories in collegiate sports with “Princess Lacy” as the teams guardian angel.
But they ran into a destined force the country became infatuated with, in UConn. Their beloved guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Their energetic coach in former NBA-journeymen Kevin Ollie. They were not the most talented, you could argue each team they faced on their championship run was far superior. But they survived each game. They couldn’t over-power anyone with any certain trait, they adapted to each game, exploited their opponents weaknesses and turned it into an advantage.
And this is where the comparisons are all too familiar. This Michigan State squad can’t get much more “Izzo” then what they are right now. A pack of seniors that watched the group before them fail to get to at least one Final Four, for the first time in the Izzo regime. They have no notable stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor or Frank Kaminsky. They have lost to teams like Texas Southern, Nebraska and Illinois. Not too long ago were they 13-7, 4-3 in the Big Ten and a “Bubble” team with no notable victories on their lacking resume.
They scratched and clawed, valiantly taking Wisconsin to overtime in the Big Ten Championship game before the more talented Badgers ran away. But that game was a signal to the rest of the field. Michigan State had their mojo back, that March swagger the Spartans seem to always find come the Big Dance. And they have most certainly proved it thus far.
As mentioned before, this roster fits the bill of classic Tom Izzo team. They go as guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine go, both have carried the offensive load (combined for 32 points, 11 assists and 12 rebounds against Louisville last Sunday) throughout the tournament for MSU.
They have role players like Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Marvin Clark Jr. Gavin Schilling and Lourawls “Tum-Tum” Nairn Jr. who provide in a variety of ways that make this team so versatile against any style of play. And they have their rock in senior Branden Dawson, a tough, rugged athletic forward who does everything from pounding the glass, to doing the dirty work and making big time plays. He follows a long line of Tom Izzo players who embody the ultimate team player. Guys like Adrien Payne, Keith Appaling, Draymond Green and Kalin Lucas.
And they all perfectly compliment the wizardry of Izzo. Don’t get me wrong, I think a little too much credit sometimes goes to coaches in college basketball. The Final Four coaches will be discussed about more than the guys on the court deciding the fate of the team. Yet, Izzo is one of those coaches where you can see his influence, a true in-game mastermind.
Take the Virginia game, the team that is the epitome of slowing the tempo down, getting into the paint and creating easy shots while rarely turning the ball over. Sparty did what very few could against the #2-seed Cavaliers all season. They shut down their efficient offense, holding them to a whopping 29.8% from the field and 2 of 17 from behind the arc. They handled Virginia on the glass and Trice was able to get the team out in transition, getting Virginia outside their comfort zone.
After that game, Izzo said they, “Changed what we do defensively in a day-and-a-half.” Only a team with experience and leadership can adjust so quickly. You hear Kentucky coach John Calipari talk about how it can be difficult to coach the young and talented freshman to handle defensive assignments, to know their role and work as one, instead of letting their athleticism and skills run rampant which in some cases can be counterintuitive.
Above all else, the fiery Izzo is known for extracting every little drip of energy out of his players. He preaches toughness, competitiveness and pushes his team through that hypothetical “wall” and to go beyond their capabilities, knowing they can’t match the talent level the opponent may possess. Remember, this wasn’t supposed to happen. This Spartan team shouldn’t be here, yet you shouldn’t be surprised when Michigan State goes bonkers in March, but each year we are still freakin’ amazed how they do it.
When they take the court against Duke this Saturday, both Coach K and Izzo know the Blue Devils are equipped with at least two lottery picks, talent that Michigan State simply does not have.
Yet, behind that million-dollar grin and the raspy, croaky voice of his, Izzo knows he has something special. On multiple occasions has he made clear that this bunch is by far his most beloved. He has a team that has suffered heart-wrenching losses, a team that has struggled yet is never sapped by the pressure or adversity of the moment, they seize it instead. A group of guys that you know by the way they talk, are willing to lay it on the line and sacrifice for the greater good.
“No one believed in us. But we did,” says Denzel Valentine. Sure sounds awfully similar to the “I told you so” proclamations from UConn’s Napier a year ago. A team that knows what they can accomplish and seem destined to do it.
“Two more hours of work, 60 years of memories,” Izzo said to his team after defeating Louisville.
From what he have seen, this team is no stranger to work. Because it is what Michigan State and Tom Izzo do, it is How they win.
And it is the reason why they are here, hungry for more and ready to fight.
Every. Single. March.