After three straight years of big expectations and then failing to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, we have three words for you: Sparty is back.
The Michigan State men’s basketball team slayed the dragon, or in this case, Duke, to reach the Final Four for the 10th time in school history.
Seriously, do any of the other teams even seem scary compared to Duke, which had the tournament's overall No. 1 seed? (Well, yes. Texas Tech’s defense looks pretty stifling, and the Spartans are going to have their hands full in Minneapolis this weekend in the semifinal. But we’ll get to all that in a bit). Duke was intimidating thanks to all the buzz all season long, and of course, that freshman trio of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish -- not to mention the fact that Michigan State has had its tournament dreams squashed by the Blue Devils so many times. When you go 1-11 against a team in recent history, it makes sense that a mental block could start to form.
But that was then and this is now. As much as Spartan fans likely want to relive Sunday’s Elite Eight victory time and time again, let’s talk about what still lies ahead: potentially two more games and a chance at a third national championship.
Why does Michigan State have a solid chance at winning this thing for the first time since 2000?
H to the Izzo, C to Cassius.
(Too much of a stretch? You know what lyrics we’re reaching for! Jay-Z would be ashamed).
All lame jokes aside, we probably don’t have to talk too much about legendary coach Tom Izzo. The Hall-of-Famer’s numbers speak for themselves: He’s 606-231 over the course of his career, and has led his team to eight Final Fours -- and it shows. Izzo knows how to prepare, make mid-game adjustments and get his guys ready for the bright lights of this big stage. All of that might sound cliche, but again, Izzo’s results speak volumes. He’s said this year’s team is mentally tough, but that’s because he’s laid the groundwork. If we had to pick a coach of the remaining guys left, our money’s on Izzo.
And of course we’d be remiss not to mention star point guard Cassius Winston, a consensus first-team All-American and the Big Ten player of year.
Izzo has compared the Detroit native to MSU greats Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves -- who’ve both led their respective teams to national championships, by the way -- and Winston is exactly who you’d want in a leader. He’s there in a pinch, when the game’s on the line, like it was versus Bradley in the first round, or against Minnesota -- do you remember when the Golden Gophers tried to make it interesting, scoring eight consecutive points to cut Sparty’s lead to 40-31? Winston absolutely took over, grabbing a rebound, making a shot at the other end, snagging a steal and another jumper, and then swiping the ball again for a 3. From there, MSU’s lead grew to as many as 22 points.
Winston is consistent and steady. When he drives the lane, he’s nearly unstoppable. He sets and controls the pace. The only player in America with a better offensive rating is Zion Williamson -- yes, the same Williamson who Michigan State beat Sunday. So there’s that.
Texas Tech is strong, but MSU could capitalize on vulnerabilities.
The Red Raiders seem to struggle against teams that are equipped with a point guard who controls the pace and doesn’t turn the ball over. Just look at their losses this season. This brings us back to Winston. We have a good feeling the Spartans will be glad he’s the one steering the ship.
Yes, Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver is insanely talented -- and that team defense looks downright terrifying at times. The Red Raiders earned some strong wins in knocking off Michigan in the Sweet 16 and Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. But MSU isn’t exactly scrubby on defense, either. The Spartans can typically hang around -- and they can score a bit easier, too. The Red Raiders’ offense, on the other hand, is ranked 30th in the country, according to a site called The Ringer, which pointed out that typically, teams don’t win titles when they’re outside the top 20 in overall offense.
In reading up on both teams, this much is clear: If Michigan State can force Culver to struggle, run down the shot clock and get Texas Tech to foul, the Spartans could certainly eke out a victory -- and although we won’t get too ahead of ourselves, neither Auburn nor Virginia appears to be, say, one of those Kentucky or North Carolina teams of the past, that looks perfectly poised to cut down the nets. Sparty's chances are as good as any.
That Spartan Magic is back.
Sometimes, Michigan State makes a tournament run when fans are least expecting it, like in 2015, as a 7-seed, or in 2005 as a 5-seed. And then there are other years the Spartans will get stopped at the Sweet Sixteen, despite having a 1-seed and Draymond Green, or they’ll lose to a lackluster Syracuse squad in Detroit, which still doesn’t make any sense, especially considering Sparty was stacked -- and even had NBA lottery picks Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. on the team. Finally, I’m not sure what fan could forget about Middle Tennessee State. Did anyone else have flashbacks during MSU’s Bradley game a few weeks ago, when things got tense?
Anyway, that "magic" appears to be with the team again this year. Of course, Michigan State certainly didn’t slide under the radar entirely or earn a 7-seed. The Spartans beat rival Michigan three times, shared the Big Ten title, won the conference tournament and were largely ranked in the top-10 all season.
Still, it’s been kind of a strange year. Guard Joshua Langford suffered a season-ending ankle injury in December, which was a huge loss, considering he was averaging career-highs in minutes played (28.6), points scored (15.0), assists (2.3) and rebounds (3.6), according to CBS Sports. And then forward Nick Ward was out for a bit after suffering a hairline fracture in his hand. He’s still not 100%.
Sparty has had to rely on some fresh faces. Yet, here they are.
This team keeps saying it's like family -- but we actually believe it.
Typically, sports cliches are annoying. You’re like family, we get it. Except -- are we suckers for buying in this year? Maybe. Maybe not.
Perhaps it’s just the stress talking from the Duke losses of the past, but when this team was silenced by the Blue Devils' 9-0 run for a few minutes Sunday, we were shaking in our boots -- feeling like this had been an all-too-familiar scenario.
A lot has been written about that moment. Apparently, the team huddled up, regrouped and made adjustments; as one does. It ended up being fine. The Spartans even went on a 13-0 run of their own, making the score at halftime 34-30, Michigan State.
Phew! That’s that experience though, of playing together, of true family ties, of trusting one another and coming through. We’ll take it!
Different guys just keep stepping up.
And that’s exactly what you need in a tournament like this one.
We’ve touched on Winston. He doesn’t have many “off” days. He’s inspired, he’s crafty and he makes these shots that are true head-scratchers at times.
But what about against LSU, where suddenly it was the Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry show?
Senior guard Matt McQuaid has been hitting big shots too -- really, ever since his roommate, Kyle Ahrens, went down; Ahrens was hurt against U-M in the Big Ten title game -- also, McQuaid has been strong defensively.
And that 3-pointer from senior forward Kenny Goins saved the day, last weekend. He embodies what this team is all about -- a former walk-on who’s breathed life and passion into a storied program.
So, can Sparty get it done this weekend? Only time will tell. Leave your final score predictions for Saturday night's game in the comments.