Coming into this season, the sky was the limit for the Spartans. Equipped with that rarest of combinations in today's college game- excellent talent and experience- this iteration looked as likely as any to bring Tom Izzo his second national championship. Preseason hype reflected that, as the Spartans began the season ranked #2 behind only Kentucky's latest batch of future pros.
There weren't many teams, after all, that could look to a senior point guard as capable of making his own shot as facilitating; a stone-cold, two-way killer on the wing; a 6'11" athletic terror with legitimate 3-point range, and a slew of complementary pieces that could have been centerpieces at many, many programs across the country- Denzel Valentine and his unparalleled court vision, mercurial Brandon Dawson's rebounding and energy, deadeye shooting from Travis Trice- but the trio of Appling, Harris, and Payne were expected to shoulder most of the burden.
The Best of Times: Top O' The World
The country wouldn't have to wait long to find out if experience or raw talent would prevail in a head-to-head matchup, as Kentucky vs MSU, #1 vs #2, was the marquee event of basketball's kickoff weekend. MSU came out swinging, and for much of the first half it looked as though the moment was too big for the young Wildcats. A monster second half from Julius Randle kept it interesting, but Kentucky ultimately wasn't ready for this kind of stage just yet, and MSU walked out of the United Center with the win and a #1 ranking.
Cue your typical MSU nonconference schedule: an unexpectedly close game from a surprisingly good opponent (Columbia), a few wins that could have looked nicer if not for Izzo's penchant for lineup tinkering, and then...the faceplant. It had to be North Carolina. It's always North Carolina, because it doesn't matter which team is better, sometimes a team and/or coach just has your number, and you wouldn't think that it would be Roy Freaking Williams for Tom Izzo, but it is and we just can't beat those powder-blue jerkfaces, no matter the circumstances.
So away went the #1 ranking, but if it bothered MSU, they didn't really show it. Following the UNC loss, the Spartans rattled off 11 consecutive wins, setting the best start in school history.
Still, all was not well. Almost from the beginning of the season, cracks had been very clearly visible in the Spartans' armor, and the grind of B1G play was about to start taking its toll.
The Worst of Times: Ouch Ouch Ouch Ouch Ouch Ouch Ouch
Re-tweaked ankle. Hip pointer. Plantar fasciitis. Mononucleosis. The table in the film room. Some kind of devil wrist sprain. You probably tired of hearing about MSU's injuries over the course of the season, and let me tell you, MSU fans wholeheartedly agreed.
Yes, every team deals with injuries. But not like this. At various times, every player in the MSU rotation except Denzel Valentine and little-used freshman Gavin Schilling missed games because of injuries (or, in Kenny Kaminski's case, suspension). Although none of the injuries were season-ending, they were, in a way, even more disruptive in that a player would be injured, miss several games, and then need several more to be reintegrated into the lineup. And, in Keith Appling's case, the injury happened to be of a sort that he never fully recovered from; throughout the second half of the season, Appling ceased to be a scoring threat, a role he needed to fill with Payne still working back into playing shape after his own foot injury.
For a while, MSU's talent allowed them to power through being a bit shorthanded from a personnel standpoint. But when main contributors started to go down and the schedule toughened up, it started to be too much to overcome: losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan were one thing, but the Spartans also fell to middling Georgetown, and dropped home games against Nebraska and Illinois, stumbling to a 5-7 record over the last 12 games of the regular season.
Postseason: Rise and Fall
I've noticed that the Big Ten Tournament, for whatever reason, isn't really viewed as anything more than a means to an end. Fans of teams already certain to make the NCAA tournament often advocate tanking in the BTT to rest up. Of course, teams on the outside of the bubble looking in take the BTT very seriously, but only as a ticket to the Big Dance. For younger teams or teams reintegrating injured players, though, the BTT is the last best chance to get as much game time in as possible before it's win-or-go-home time, and it was the latter category that MSU fell into this year at Bankers Life.
God bless Drew Crawford, he tried, but Northwestern's short rotation didn't have enough left in the tank to put up much of a fight. Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers were considerably tougher game, but Wisconsin's weak transition defense gave up too many easy points. And, in the final, MSU finally brought its full roster to the floor against Michigan, and abused the Wolverines in the paint to lock up the BTT title.
The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament featured feisty, but ultimately overmatched, opponents. Delaware had a set of guards that could light it up with the best of them, but had no answer for Adreian Payne (though, the way he played that game, plenty of NBA teams wouldn't have had an answer for him). Harvard, under the direction of old nemesis/punching bag Tommy Amaker, yielded a big lead thanks to a career day from Brandon Dawson, but the Crimson clawed their way back in when MSU took its foot off the gas to take a brief second-half lead before MSU reasserted itself.
What you thought of the MSU-Virginia matchup in the Sweet Sixteen largely depends on what you find to be beautiful in sports. If you like finesse teams and soaring offensive outputs, this game wasn't for you, and you should scurry off to watch the NBA, where players are free to roam without such strictures as travelling calls, instead of B1G basketball. But if you see the beauty in effort, in consistent close-outs and disciplined rotations and diving for every loose ball, if you can appreciate the difference between the pack line and a traditional man-to-man, this game was a work of art. It felt like an arm-wrestling match in a crowded, noisy bar, wherein you might actually be able to affect the outcome by making enough noise. The game was back and forth all night, tied with less than two minutes to go, and then it turned out that MSU had a Payne and Virginia didn't, and that was the difference.
Which brought us to UConn. All the strange anecdotal facts seemed to augur well. Izzo's notorious success in the second game of tournament weekends, including a 6-1 record in the Elite Eight to that point. His streak of sending every four-year player to a Final Four needed only one more win to continue.
On paper, UConn was a thorny problem. The teams had played, with very similar rosters, in one of the first games of the 2012-13 season, and UConn had won it largely on the backs of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, a pair of aggressive, intelligent guards who were both back with nearly two more years of experience.
That game, at Ramstein AFB in Germany, turned out to be an unfortunately accurate predictor. Napier and Boatright hounded MSU's guards into turnovers and disrupted offensive sets all day, and I felt like a hypocrite at various points for demanding the hand-check foul calls on the perimeter which I had spent most of the season complaining about. Despite a horrid offensive day featuring just six (!) points in the paint, MSU was within striking distance until the very end.
Ultimately, though, Napier had one of those days where he wasn't going to be denied. If MSU narrowed the lead to one or two, Napier would drill a deep, contested three. If UConn's offense stalled, he'd draw a foul and bury the free throws. He reminded me of vintage Kalin Lucas, and there came a point where I realized we weren't going to beat this guy, and I'm not right about much when it comes to sports, but I was right about that and our season was over.
I won't say I'm satisfied with this season, because in my heart of hearts, I'm not. This team was one of the most talented I've ever seen and they couldn't get it done. Tom Izzo won't be around forever, and I rather doubt there's enough talent on the roster and in the pipeline to win another title in the next few years. I will always, always wonder how great this team could have been if most of the season hadn't been wasted trying to manage injuries. But, at risk of spouting tired cliches, this team will also remind me of how much more sports can mean than which banners you get to hang at the end of the season.
Most of you, reading this, know the story of Lacey Holsworth, the young cancer patient who formed a close friendship with Adreian Payne. You've seen the pictures of the two of them on the court at Payne's Senior Night, of them cutting down the nets at the BTT, of her watching him put on a show at the dunk contest. You've heard that she died not long after the season came to an end.
Adreian Payne, with his classmates Keith Appling and Dan Chapman, became Tom Izzo's first four-year players to not raise a Final Four banner. But I guarantee you he still views this season as a success because of the joy he was able to bring to that little girl, and the solace her family felt knowing Lacey's story touched so many lives.
It's hard to say what next year will bring for MSU basketball. Brandon Dawson's return will lift expectations somewhat, but next year's team will still need to figure out how to score without Harris and Payne. Role players will need to step into leading roles, and new guys will need to make an impact. Whatever the results on the court, though, it's tough to imagine next season leaving the same impression this one did.