Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, March 31, 2015
Any run to the Final Four is precious and impressive. The brutal and unforgiving nature of the one-and-done NCAA Tournament provides no mulligans. So, surviving and advancing to the last weekend of the Big Dance is a big accomplishment.
The road to the Final Four is littered with hundreds of very good teams, players and coaches who never reached college basketball?s nirvana. Coaches like Gene Keady, Norm Stewart, John Chaney, Tom Davis, Lefty Driesell, Tom Penders, among others, never reached the summit of the sport despite having some very good teams.
Michigan State?s Tom Izzo is one of the fortunate ones. In fact, let?s call him ?Mr. March,? as this will be his seventh trip to the Final Four in 20 years at Michigan State. And this journey to Indianapolis for the Final Four may be his sweetest and most unlikely during what has been glorious tenure in East Lansing. Up next: a date with No. 1-seed Duke in the national semifinals on Saturday.
"It'll go down as the best one, just because of all we went through all year," Izzo said. "It doesn't mean I'm separating a lot of my great guys from anything, but this team probably had the least chance to get there, and so that's going to make it a little special."
No argument here. Many felt Michigan State had a shot to reach the Sweet 16. But beyond that? Things looked murky for this edition of the Spartans, arguably the least talented of Izzo?s tenure which began in 1995-96. How many NBA players are on this team? Maybe a couple of fringe NBAers. But, that?s about it. Regardless, the national spotlight again has swung to Michigan State.
But Spartan fans won?t forget Izzo?s first trip to the Final Four in 1999. Back then, Michigan State was a No. 1 seed in the Midwest and made it to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the big event. The Spartans came up short, losing 68-62 to No. 1 Duke-the top seed in the tourney-in the national semifinals. But that didn?t sully what was the program?s first trip to the Final Four since Magic Johnson took Michigan State on a magic ride to the 1979 national championship. Spartan Nation will always be fond of Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves and Co., for getting the ball rolling on the Izzo?s juggernaut.
Izzo?s second junket to the Final Four was the grandest of all, as it produced a national championship over Florida. Cleaves got a taste of college basketball?s big stage the year before. He and his cohorts weren?t going to be denied this time around, playing as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. MSU went all the way, beating Billy Donovan?s Gators to win what has been the Big Ten?s last national championship.
Michigan State would make it three in three years with a march back to the Final Four in 2001 as the No. 1 seed in the South. But like in 1999, the Spartans came up short, falling to No. 2 Arizona in the national semifinals, 80-61.
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So, that?s three years, three No. 1 seeds, and one national championship. Glory days, indeed. More special seasons followed, as Michigan State made it to the Final Four in 2005, 2009 and 2010. In fact, cases could be made that the 2005 and 2010 Spartan clubs can rival the 2015 edition for ?Most Unlikely Michigan State Final Four Team.?
The 2010 team saw star Kalin Lucas get hurt in the second round and still make the Final Four. Still, those two squads were ranked all season. And each began the Big Dance as a No. 5 seed. So, it?s not like runs to the Final Four were shocking.
This year?s Michigan State squad? It is a No. 7 seed and has 11 defeats, the most of any Spartan team to make the Final Four. And one of those losses was to Texas Southern ? at home.
?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 to Texas Southern. ?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.?
It wasn't just the Texas Southern loss that made people write off this team as a Final Four contender, though. The Spartans also lost at Nebraska and vs. Minnesota, in addition to non-conference defeats to top-tier teams like Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame.
Want more? Michigan State was 19-10, including 10-6 in the Big Ten, entering the final week of the regular season.
Now, look at the Spartans. In typical Izzo fashion, the Spartans were at their best when the calendar flipped to March, ending the regular season with a senior night win vs. Purdue, despite losing senior Branden Dawson in the first half, and a narrow victory at Indiana, playing without Dawson. Next up was the Big Ten tournament, and the Spartans beat Ohio State and Maryland en route to advancing to the tourney title game, which it lost in overtime to Wisconsin, the team's only loss in its last nine games. You know what's happened in the NCAA tourney.
Win or lose in this Final Four, this Michigan State club always will have a special place in the heart of Spartans fans. It is, after all, the most improbable Izzo team to reach the summit of the sport.
"They were all different in a lot of ways, but I think this was the most improbable because the team had lost some games and we had gone through some things," Izzo said.
Those ?things? have forged a steely will for a team that refuses to die and may have more big moments left.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, 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.|