Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, March 23, 2015

There were smiles all along the Michigan State bench on Sunday. Why not? The Spartans were on the precipice of dispatching No. 2 Virginia in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tourney. MSU would be going on to the Sweet 16 following a 60-54 win.

[ MORE: View our NCAA tourney coverage | NCAA tourney bracket ]

"It was his time to shine," said Spartan muscleman Branden Dawson.

And shine the Spartans (25-11 overall; 12-6 Big Ten) did in a vintage Michigan State performance that featured lots of suffocating defense, tenacious rebounding and good old-fashion Spartan grit.

Now, it?s on to play No. 3 Oklahoma in Syracuse, New York, in the East Region. Win that, and Michigan State will take on the winner of No. 4 Louisville-No. 8 N.C. State for a spot in the Final Four.

Michigan State? Possibly in the Final Four? That didn?t seem possible a few short weeks ago. But here are the Spartans, whose tide rises most every March.

This is the fourth consecutive season that Michigan State is in the Sweet 16, the seventh in the last eight years and the 13th for Izzo. Been there, done that stuff, right? This is old hat for one of college basketball?s premier programs and coaches. But excuse some who feel this trip may be one of the sweetest of all when you consider this is far from one of Izzo?s most talented rosters. How many NBA players are on this team?

In fact, just last season, Michigan State had a loaded roster primed to make a Final Four run with the likes of Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris. Alas, the Spartans got dumped by eventual national champion UConn in a regional final.

"We got what we deserved today," Izzo said after losing to No. 7 seed UConn last March. "I tried to tell these guys that, when you get to the tournament, you got to bring it every second. And today Connecticut did, and we just kind of weren't as good as we have been."

If that collection of Spartans couldn?t make it to the Final Four–the Spartans' seniors become the first four-year players recruited by Izzo to fail to make a Final Four–what chance did the 2014-15 Michigan State squad have?

[ MORE: Best of the Round of 32: Travis Trice, MSU featured ]

When this season dawned, few had great expectations for this team, a fringe Top 25 club. And, sure enough, the Spartans looked flawed, losing marquee non-conference games to Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame. There even was a humiliating overtime home loss to ? Texas Southern?

"As you get older, you start worrying about people liking you, and I did not work my team. I felt sorry for them. I did not work them like I normally do," Izzo said in the aftermath of the defeat on Dec. 20. "We didn't practice as hard — too worried about my little guys getting tired. … That was a coaching loss, and I take full responsibility for it, and I plan on rectifying it starting at 8:30 tomorrow morning."

While the loss to Texas Southern may have been rock bottom, it wasn?t the turning point this season.

The Spartans were seemingly teetering on the edge of the NCAA tourney in the dead of winter. Flash back a month ago, when Michigan State was going 6-4 in a 10-game stretch and staring down the reality of missing the Big Dance for the first time since 1997-a run of 17 consecutive trips to the NCAA tourney in jeopardy.

The Spartans lost at Nebraska on Jan. 24. Then came a home setback to Illinois on Feb. 7. Next were consecutive defeats, as Michigan State lost at home on Feb. 26 to Minnesota in overtime and at Wisconsin on March 1. The win by the Badgers allowed them to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. For the Spartans, it clinched the presence of more doubt.

The Spartans looked in the mirror and saw the sober reality of a team that was 19-10 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten. Izzo didn?t start Dawson at Wisconsin, alluding to his displeasure with Dawson?s performance in the previous loss to Minnesota.

"We're not going to play at 25-30 percent,? said Izzo afterward to the media. ?I thought he did, so that was my decision, and I'll take full responsibility for it.?

Dawson finished with just four points, hitting 2-of-4 shots and missed two free throws vs. the Badgers. The loss dropped Michigan State into a fourth-place tie with Iowa. A program famous for its physical play got outrebounded 35-24 by Wisconsin. And one of MSU's star players didn't look dialed in.

"The rebounding is a telltale (sign) of where a team is at mentally," Izzo said.

Which direction was this team going to go? Up next was a visit from a hot Purdue squad that was 8-2 in its previous 10 games. Many felt it was a pivotal game for the Spartans. Some even said it was a ?must win.? And those people were correct. The Spartans delivered vs. the Boilermakers, taking a 72-66 decision.

"You have to give Michigan State credit," said Purdue coach Matt Painter, whose team led 30-27 at intermission. "I thought they were mentally and physically tougher than us in the second half."

Izzo wasn?t going to disagree.

"Welcome to NFL Films," said Izzo, who has been to six Final Fours. "That was a hell of a game. I don't know where to start, because there were so many things that happened, and I just know there were two teams that played awfully hard."

Since winning that physical game vs. Purdue, Michigan State has gone 6-1-with Dawson often playing well along with Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. The lone loss was in overtime to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Now, Izzo and Michigan State stand on the precipice of a Final Four run in an East Region that has seen No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Virginia dispatched. It is the first time a No. 1 and 2 seed from the same region didn't advance to the Sweet 16 since Kentucky and Gonzaga in 2004.

"They are so good defensively,? said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose team lost to MSU in the NCAA tourney for a second season in a row.

That defense Bennett talked about, Izzo and his assistants decided to implement a brand new approach, one that stressed helping with the bigs instead of the guards and keeping the opponents out of the lane, after the opening-round win over Georgia.

"They literally told us a totally different game plan from some of the things we've been taught for four years," Trice said. "For them to be able to display that to us and for us to pick it up, I just think it shows how great of coaches they are."

The Spartans were quick learners, limiting Virginia to 29.8 percent from the floor and six assists, both season lows.

This should come as no surprise. Izzo is one of the game's greatest coaches, and, as mentioned above, he always saves his best for March (13-1 in Round of 32 games), when scouting opponents and devising new gameplans on the fly is the norm (20-4 in second games of NCAA tourney weekends).

With Izzo at the helm, not to mention the way the region is shaking out, the Spartans may continue to exceed expectations in a season in which Izzo is doing some of his best coaching ever.

"We're just not as talented as we've been, so we are always cheating to find a way to get an edge," Izzo said after dispatching the Cavaliers. "Coaches can tell you what to do, but when muscle memory tells you to do it another way … your focus has to be incredible. And that was incredible focus if you asked me."

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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