Well, it’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament time. Sort of. I know there were some “play-in” games played or there will be, or…they don’t matter. This is about the Michigan State Spartans and also, their head coach, Tom Izzo. Yes, he of the 465-186 record over 19 years at MSU. The same Izzo who has led Sparty to seven regular season Big 10 titles, four Big 10 conference tournament titles, compiled an NCAA tournament record of 39-15 and navigated his team through the maze that is the NCAA bracket to six Final Fours. He has never had a senior class that didn’t appear in a Final Four and of course, he has a national title ring from 2000. And the man who is 12-4 in the opening round of the tournament lets his players know that he is doing battle with them, come March. “[He] always tell us, ‘Get me through the first day, I’ll get you through the second,'” said former Spartan do-everything hooper, Draymond Green.
This year’s team began the season ranked second in the country in the Associated Press and coaches poll. In their second game of the season, Sparty beat then-top ranked Kentucky at the United Center in what was mostly an excellent game between a MSU team with one surefire first-round pick (shooting guard Gary Harris) and UK one with an entire starting lineup that could ultimately end up all being first-round picks when their collegiate careers are over. MSU then enjoyed a three-week stay atop the polls before seemingly, the Spartans just couldn’t stay healthy. Or hit free throws. Or not turn the ball over. Or simply, play good damn basketball. After going 18-2 in their first 20 games, with their only losses coming at home to North Carolina ( starters PG Keith Appling, PF Adreian Payne and Harris shot a combined 16-40 from the floor) and at home to Michigan (both Payne and starting G/F Branden Dawson missed the game due to injury), Sparty went 5-6 to finish the regular season, losing on the road to Ohio St. by 2 in the finale. Thankfully, Harris got over some of his injury woes, Payne’s foot healed, Dawson’s broken hand healed (don’t slam a desk with your fist during a film session, kids), Appling and his bum wrist appeared to turn a corner, and anyone else who even thought about getting sick or hurt realized that the conference tournament was fast approaching.
Three days, three games. MSU dispatched of Northwestern easily and despite the 83-75 final score, did the same to Wisconsin. With a chance to exact a little revenge on rival Michigan in the conference tournament title game after being swept in the regular season, Sparty played arguably its most impressive game to date. In a 69-55 win, MSU outrebounded a top-10 Michigan team by 14, shot 50% from the field compared to 32% for Michigan, and held Wolverines sharpshooter Nik Stauskas to only four points in the second half after he scored thirteen in the first.
With conference tournament title in hand, MSU waited for the NCAA tournament selection committee to tell them what seed they’d earned as well as where they’d be playing their first weekend. Somehow, some way, the committee tabbed Sparty as a 4 seed (Louisville, also a 4, got the shaft, too) and banished them to Spokane, Washington, where they will play the 13th-seeded Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens at 4:40 PM, ET, in the East Region. The Blue Hens, of the Colonial Athletic Conference, are dancing after beating William & Mary in the conference tournament title game, 75-74.
Despite a regular season and conference tournament title, the Blue Hens should prove to be absolutely no match for the upstart (can a team that began the season with serious title aspirations at any point be considered an upstart?) Spartans, who appear to be fully healthy and determined to show that their shaky stretch was attributed more to missing key players because of injury than subpar play. Delaware is an average offensive team, which certainly won’t be good enough to beat MSU. On defense, they’re one of the worst in the country, which should make Sparty’s task even easier.
I wouldn’t say that MSU is the hottest team in the country right now. That title probably belongs to North Carolina Central University. However, biases aside, I felt before the regular season started that if healthy and not at each other’s throats, this Michigan St. team could easily find itself in contention for a spot in the Final Four. To hell with ESPN analysts picking the Green and White to go all the way, because, to hell with them. Despite some disappointments in years’ past, I’m confident this team can do more in this year’s tournament than make some noise. In Sparty I Trust. GO GREEN. GO WHITE.