Prologue, Nonconference: Clouds Gather
2014 was supposed to be the breakthrough season for Tom Izzo's Spartans, boasting a combination of experience and talent that's not often seen in today's college landscape. Shabazz Napier and UConn got in the way in the Elite Eight. Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, and Gary Harris all moved on, Izzo's all-in gamble on the biggest recruits in the country came up empty, and expectations for 2014-15 bottomed out in the fanbase. The team was left with the hyperathletic but offensively limited Branden Dawson, a lightly recruited career backup point guard in Travis Trice, the versatile but erratic Denzel Valentine, a transfer shooting guard in Bryn Forbes with a great shot but not much else, a pair of decent but incomplete centers in Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling, and an unremarkable trio of freshmen. All of them had been complementary players at best prior to the season, and all would now be relied on to carry the team.
The season opener at the Naval Academy turned out to be a decent prognosticator for most of the season. MSU appeared to be the better team, but made enough mistakes to let Navy keep it close. And...6/10 from the free throw line...well, it was a small enough sample size that no one was terribly concerned.
MSU's non-con featured three teams that would eventually earn high tournament seeds, and the Spartans came up short against all of them, losing to Duke by 10, Kansas by 5, and Notre Dame by 1 in overtime. MSU couldn't match Duke's skill, as the Blue Devils shot 54%; against Kansas, the Spartans couldn't buy a bucket, shooting just 32% over the entire game; and the Notre Dame game was simply a case of Jerian Grant being really, really good, to the tune of 27 points.
Well, the thought went, no reason for excessive concern, MSU often loses its high-profile nonconference games and then sorts it out later, everything will probably be fine- and then Branden Dawson broke his wrist against Eastern Michigan, and MSU dropped its next game to 2-8 Texas Southern. Although the Tigers would go on to make the NCAA tourney and take a little of the grime off that loss, it represented a recurrence of the Navy theme: control a game most of the way, then lose focus, make mistake after mistake, and seem unable to handle the pressure when things tighten up- especially at the free throw line, where MSU shot 12/21.
Conference Act I: The Winter of Discontent
There were a lot of reasons to be upset about the first Maryland game. The Terps getting a ludicrous 32 foul shots after halftime jumps to the front of the list. Izzo's decision not to foul up three at the end of regulation is right up there, as well, and although the numbers show that that decision usually doesn't matter anyway, everything about how that game had gone should have augured against leaving the ball in Dez Wells' hands. Two overtimes later, MSU had found yet another way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
From there, the Spartans embarked on an ulcer-inducing roller coaster. They blitzed Indiana by 20 with dominating interior play. They went to Carver Hawkeye Arena, fell behind by 11, and then lit the nets on fire to win by 14. They again opted to defend up 3 in the closing seconds against Northwestern and again yielded the game-tying buzzer-beater 3-ball at home, but this time pulled it out in OT. The return trip to Maryland required no chicanery from the officials for the Terps to win big as Melo Trimble couldn't miss. As was typically the case for Penn State, D.J. Newbill couldn't beat the Spartans by himself.
Nebraska was, perhaps, the peak WTF moment of the season. Noted Spartan hater Terran Petteway carried over his rampage against MSU from the previous season by pouring in 32. MSU outrebounded the Huskers by 22, but suffered a game-long brain cramp on the offensive end, managing to shoot 41% from the field for the game, turning the ball over 16 times, and coming in at 15/25 from the free throw line. That's a lot of effort to result in a 2-point loss, and I admit this is the point at which I declared to myself that this team wasn't making the NCAA tournament.
The team looked similarly frustrated, and took that out on poor, helpless Rutgers in a 20-point, snow-postponed beatdown. A shorthanded Michigan team played over its head to force OT, but MSU's dominance in that frame (10-0) inspired some hope that, perhaps, a win over the hated Wolverines would finally put this team on the right track.
Conference Act II: Shrug and Enjoy the Ride
Or not, as they followed the encouraging Michigan win up with a 5-point rockfight loss at home to Illinois. Once again, MSU could not make a free throw down the stretch, even when a bizarre call from Ted "TV Teddy" Valentine- a technical on a guy who boxed out Bryn Forbes after Forbes shot a FT. The ball don't lie, and Forbes proceeded to miss the free opportunities the refs gifted him.
True to form, the Jekyll-and-Hyde Spartans rebounded by trouncing Northwestern on the road. They played their typical nailbiter with OSU, complete with a game-tying 3 from Sam Thompson and then a game-winning 3 from Valentine. Dawson and Trice manhandled Michigan to complete the season sweep, and MSU tagged Illinois back in Champaign. Riding a four-game winning streak, it looked as though the team was rounding into form.
Until it didn't look like that anymore in a hideous OT loss to Minnesota, when all the same problems came tumbling back onto the court- inability to hold a lead, inability to hit free throws late, an opponent going unconscious from deep, and, in a new twist, the inability to not fall for the pump-fake, leading to multiple 4-point plays and a loss to an inferior team. The follow-up trip to Wisconsin was never as close as the score indicated as Frank Kaminsky put on a clinic in his last game at the Kohl Center, and MSU suddenly found itself back in the bubble conversation thanks to the ugly Minnesota loss.
When faced with premiere big men in Jahlil Okafor and Kaminsky, MSU's bigs had not been up to the task. But, against Purdue's pair of 7-footers and with Dawson limited by another injury, MSU's frontcourt played masterfully, even getting a huge defensive contribution from former walk-on Colby Wollenman, who gave up 6 inches to Purdue's centers but still limited both when he was on the floor. MSU's victory ensured Dawson would finish his career without a loss to the Boilermakers, something I'm sure they aren't aggrieved about. In the regular-season finale with Indiana, MSU once again tried its hardest to give the game away, fouling Yogi Ferrell while leading by 2 in the closing seconds. Ferrell, normally a great free throw shooter, split the pair, and IU's last-second heave came up short.
Final (Four) Act: 7th Heaven
Despite MSU's up-and-down regular season, the parity of the B1G had ensured they received a double-bye in the BTT. The Big 3 of Dawson, Trice and Valentine overpowered Ohio State in the first game. Maryland thundered out of the gates in the semifinal, but could not maintain their 16-point first half lead, and MSU came all the way back to hand the Terps their first loss in a game decided by fewer than 7 points.
The BTT final gave MSU another shot at Wisconsin, which was theoretically playing for a 1-seed. The Spartans had the Badgers on the ropes, but once again (tell me if you see a pattern here) committed an unconscionable series of mistakes to let the Badgers force OT. Once that happened, MSU was plainly out of steam, and the Badgers dominated the extra frame.
MSU's end-of-season wins over Purdue and Indiana had probably secured them a tourney spot, and if not, the wins over OSU and Maryland in the BTT certainly did. They drew a 7 seed, which would mean a reasonably challenging first-round matchup and then almost certainly the 2-seed in the Round of 32.
The first matchup played out as so many other games had over the course of the season. The game was mostly close at first. MSU then pushed its lead out to double digits, but offered enough mistakes and lapsed focus to let Georgia shrink a 12-point lead with 90 seconds left to 3. The refreshing difference came at the charity stripe, where Valentine finished with 6 straight free throws (the rest of the team went 5/13 on the day).
That win meant a rematch with Virginia, a team MSU had slain in the tourney the year before. Perhaps recalling the wrestling match the Cavaliers had forced the year before, MSU leapt out to an early lead thanks to hot shooting from Trice. Virginia was too good to let the Spartans pull away, but the game's defensive intensity seemed to magnify the value of every point. To be sure, Virginia's offense struggled with Justin Anderson still recovering from a broken finger, but the Cavaliers had still won 30 games and fielded a surprisingly efficient offense to match their famously stingy defense; scoring this win lent a playing-with-house-money feel to the tourney's second weekend.
Or that was the feeling until news came through that the region's 1-seed, Villanova, had been upset. Beyond the Sweet Sixteen, there really weren't any powerhouse teams left in the top half of the East. After weathering Oklahoma's early shooting surge to advance to the Elite Eight, the possibility of some serious hardware became very real.
The Louisville game in the Elite Eight had everything you could want in a tourney matchup: two Hall of Fame coaches and experienced teams with players who had stepped up in the postseason. For most of the first half, it looked like Louisville had the upper hand. Montrezl Harrell had dished some pre-game chatter about Dawson's motor, and then went wild in the first 20 minutes to complement a career game from Wayne Blackshear. But the margin at halftime was only 8, and Louisville's offensive performance proved unsustainable: after shooting over 50% in the first half, Louisville managed just 6/32 from the field in the second half and OT. Harrell noticeably wore down, Dawson asserted himself, and there was even late-game free throw drama provided by the other team for once as Mangok Mathiang's first attempt bounced off the heel, about six feet up, and dropped in to tie it before he missed the second.
I'd love to say the dream run continued in the rematch with an overthrow of big, bad, haughty Duke. But it didn't. The thing about a team of mostly freshmen is they'll get a lot better over the course of the year. MSU still had minimal answer for Okafor, Tyus Jones was still great, and when Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen got in the act, MSU had no chance. Coach K gets great talent, but convincing them to play defense the way Duke did this year is probably his greatest coaching gift. I had a feeling we were in trouble when I saw Duke had held a potent Gonzaga team to 52 points, and despite MSU starting the game by punching Duke in the mouth, it just wasn't meant to be, as it pretty much never is for Izzo against Coach K.
Epilogue: How'd That Happen?
MSU's preseason expectations and performance over the course of the year suggested a deep tournament run probably was not in the offing. Even making the field was in doubt for months. For Mateen's sake, they shot 60% from the foul line over the season. That's, like, what I managed as a talentless high schooler. So how did this team, relatively bereft of talent, pull off the improbable and get Tom izzo to his 7th Final Four?
1) Travis Trice turned out to be a lot more than most people expected. This is probably the biggest single thing. Trice was only ever noticed as a recruit because he played AAU ball with Dawson, and he spent most of his career fighting through a string of injuries to earn mere backup minutes behind Keith Appling. It's fair to say very few observers expected him to play 33 minutes a game while putting in over 15 PPG, shooting about 37% from deep, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of roughly 5:2. By any measure, he had a historically great season.
2) Denzel Valentine's overall game made a second frosh-to-soph jump. That's tongue-in-cheek of course, but Valentine got a lot better in three big ways: he became a much better defender, he cut down the dumb mistakes that counteracted a lot of his brilliant play in his first two years, and he developed a good 3-point shot. His versatility allowed him to make a big impact even on nights when his shots weren't falling, and he certainly had a few of those. This will indisputably be his team next year as the other two primary producers move on.
3) Branden Dawson was on far more often than he was off. The perennial complaint among the MSU fanbase re: Dawson was his apparently inconsistent level of engagement; he would alternate dominating games with no-shows. Well, until yet another injury slowed him a bit towards the end of the year, Dawson spend most of the conference season averaging a double-double. It may have taken longer than fans liked, but we finally saw Dawson flat-out dominate for extended periods, production which was badly needed due to MSU's overall lack of size.
4) Unparalleled team chemistry allowed everyone to contribute when needed. Although the three guys listed above were vital to MSU's success, those three alone wouldn't have gone far. The team's role players, almost to a man, had moments that ensured the team would maximize its potential. Matt Costello, a former 4* recruit and Mr. Basketball in Michigan, was relegated to a bench role; when Michigan forced OT, Costello turned in one of the most dominant 5-minute stretches of play I've seen from a Spartan big. Alvin Ellis, a subject of constant transfer speculation among the fanbase, went off for 16 points in Bloomington, every one of which was necessary to beat Indiana. Bryn Forbes, originally viewed as solely a shooter who was a defensive liability, offered 31 solid minutes against Oklahoma despite only hitting one shot on the day.The fact that guys were willing to accept secondary roles or less and still be ready when their name was called was invaluable to this team, and probably won't be replicated next year when a wave of fresh talent dons the green and white.