There surely are no guarantees for Michigan State Spartisans in today’s Big 10 Tournament men’s basketball final against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are a very talented team, the overwhelming pre-season favorite to win the conference championship and briefly the #1 team in the nation before a mid-season slump knocked them into a regular season tie for first with MSU and Michigan.
OSU’s gritty 72-70 win in East Lansing last Sunday forced that three-way tie, and they looked inspired in their first two tournament games. They surged late against Purdue to break open a close game Friday. And what was left on the court after Saturday’s end-to-end 77-55 demolition of Michigan were not Wolverines, but smithereens.
(Since I’m sure anyone who cares enough to read this post undoubtedly saw or read about the details of the games, I won’t repeat. Nor will I engage in too much blatant schadenfreude over the fact that the team that skunked Michigan yesterday was the same one — their blood rivals in college sports — that their fans rooted for to beat Michigan State just six days earlier so Michigan could claim whatever validation came from backing in to a one-third share of the regular season title. I know the saying that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but it’s a pretty bad idea in sports to empower your worst enemy when you may have to play them in a few days. That wasn’t gratitude that Ohio State showed Michigan yesterday.)
Yet the Spartans have an opportunity to stake a clear claim on being the best team in what is widely regarded as the nation’s strongest men’s basketball conference this season, after shaking off a slow start Saturday and racing past Wisconsin, 65-52, in a game they led by as many as 19 points. It was MSU’s third win in three games this year over Wisconsin, the 12th-ranked team nationally, which otherwise this year was 24-6 overall and 12-3 in the Big 10.
It would be hard to find two teams more evenly matched based on the season record so far than the tournament finalists. Michigan State, which has the number 1 strength of schedule among all college teams, has 26 wins and 7 losses; Ohio State, with the number 11 strength of schedule, is 27-6. Both teams are 15-5 in Big 10 play (including their two tournament wins apiece), and each won a game this season in the other’s house, with MSU winning 58-48 in Columbus on Feb. 11 and OSU turning the tables last Sunday.
Regardless of the outcome of today’s game, the very fact that Michigan State is playing in the Big 10 Tournament finals at all — with a #2 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament seemingly assured and a #1 seed a realistic possibility of they do win today — certifies the Big 10 Coach of the Year honor already bestowed on MSU head coach Tom Izzo, and (in my obviously non-unbiased view) should make him the front-runner for national coach of the year.
MSU fans had reason to be nervous going into the tournament. After clinching a share of the regular season Big 10 title with two games to go, the Spartans suffered a 15-point loss at Indiana (their biggest deficit this season) and, after running up a big early lead against Ohio State last Sunday, appeared deflated after star freshman forward Branden Dawson went down with what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury and ended up losing on a shot with 1 second remaining.
But a breezy 92-75 quarterfinal rout over Iowa in the tournament quarterfinal round was followed by yesterday’s ultimately comfortable win over Wisconsin, victories that showed both the depth of Izzo’s recruiting and team-oriented coaching, and his genius at getting most of his teams to adjust to adversity (as we saw in 2010 when Lucas, the team’s best player, went down in a second-round NCAA game with a torn Achilles tendon, but the Spartans made it to the Final Four anyway).
Every other team being considered for a number 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament — Syracuse, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Ohio State — was expected to be there, ranked high in the national polls at the start of the season. Michigan State was unranked and, after testing themselves and losing to North Carolina and Duke to start the season, did not even crack the Top 25 until Week 6.
At the very least, Michigan State would easily win the comeback team of the year if there were such a prize.
The 2010-11 season was the most difficult for Izzo in a 17-year tenure as head coach that has seen the Spartans win one national championship and go to five other Final Fours. A combination of injuries, discipline problems and clashing personalities dropped the team to 19-15 overall, 9-9 for a fourth-place tie in the Big 10 regular season, a semifinal loss to underdog Penn State in the Big 10 tournament, and a one-and-done loss to a meh UCLA team in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
On paper, it did appear to look like a mess for this season. Star seniors Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers cycled out. Guards Chris Allen and Korie Lucious, who were programmed to be major contributors by last season, had falling-outs and transferred to Iowa State. And not long before this season started, forward Delvon Roe, a coveted recruit out of high school, determined that three years was enough for his injury-ruined knees.
Yet these seeming problems produced the one biggest factor in Michigan State’s amazing turnaround: They allowed senior forward Draymond Green, one of the most inspirational players ever to wear a Spartan uniform, to gain clear command as the team’s floor and bench leader. All that produced was a Big 10 Player of the Year honor for Green, who also is a candidate for national player of the year. And he rallied a team made up heavily of sophomores and freshmen to play like Izzo’s more typically senior-oriented squads.
Here’s hoping the Spartans can crown these achievements with one more Big 10 win this afternoon.