And then that happened. The score of Michigan State University’s game in Thursday’s NCAA “Sweet Sixteen” (regional semifinal) basketball contest speaks for itself: Louisville 57, MSU 44.
The statistics also speak for themselves. The Spartans shot just 29 percent from the field, a figure that made Louisville’s own subpar 38 percent shooting look mighty by comparison. MSU, one of the best rebounding teams in the nation this year, was beaten off the boards by 34-32. And Michigan State had 15 turnovers — several of which were converted into easy baskets by Louisville — to their opponents’ nine. Draymond Green, the senior forward, team captain and inspirational leader, had 13 points and 16 rebounds, yet no one could say it was even close to his best performance in green and white.
So we Spartisans could have ourselves a big old pity party, bemoaning how a team that overcame low pre-season expectations to win the Big 10 championship and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament could end the year on such a sour note.
But we won’t.
Because when you strip away the hopes and expectations that the team had built with its amazing run, it is easy to grab onto the perspective that this, from Day 1, has been a Cinderella season for Michigan State and its fans.
The Spartans entered their 2011-12 campaign coming off one of the most difficult seasons of head coach Tom Izzo’s tenure, which has now produced one national championship, five other visits to the Final Four, 15 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament and games in the Sweet Sixteen in 10 of those 15 years, including this one.
Last year’s Michigan State team, which arguably had more individual talent than this year’s, nonetheless went just 19-15, finished 9-9 for a tie for fourth in the Big 10, got knocked out of the Big 10 tournament by upstart Penn State, and was one-game-and-out in the NCAA tourney with a first-round loss to mediocre UCLA. That downturn was largely attributed to poor team chemistry among the players.
From that team, MSU lost star starters Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers to graduation, sixth man Korie Lucious to a transfer that resulted from discipline problems, and senior Delvon Roe, who simply could no longer play on his injury-damaged knees. The Spartans entered this season with Green as the only player with substantial Michigan State experience in the starting lineup.
MSU started their schedule unranked in the national Top 25, and would remain so until the sixth week. Izzo, who throughout his career has tested his players with a difficult out-of-conference schedule, topped himself by committing his team to an opening game against top-ranked North Carolina — played on the deck of an aircraft carrier docked in San Diego — and then a game against highly ranked Duke across the country at New York’s Madison Square Garden just four days later. The Spartans lost both to start out the season 0-2.
But then things gelled. Green’s court talent and fired-up leadership; the emergence of junior Derrick Nix and sophomore Adriean Payne as a strong platoon at center; the rapid improvement of forward Brenden Dawson, a touted freshman recruit and full-year starter until a knee injury in the Spartans’ last regular season game knocked him out of post-season play; solid backcourt play from sophomore point guard Kevin Appling, with contributions from senior transfer Brandon Wood and freshman Travis Trice; and the steady play of senior swing man Austin Thornton, a former walk-on.
All this added up to a 15-game winning streak after those initial two losses, and ultimately a tie with overwhelming pre-season conference favorite Ohio State and Michigan for the regular season Big 10 title, a run through Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State for the Big 10 tournament championship, and two wins in the NCAAs before they finally hit a wall that they couldn’t run through.
So we will smile with pride when we walk into the Breslin Center arena and see that Big 10 championship banner and the inevitable retired jersey number 23 worn by Draymond Green. We thank Green, Thornton, Wood and departing senior reserve Anthony Ianni for their contributions. We thank the players who will be returning next year with their desire to succeed tempered more strongly by Thursday’s disappointment.
But there is a greater truth that I should make clear, because I spend so much time on my blog writing about the games that Michigan State athletes play.
I do not love Michigan State University because I love Michigan State sports.
I love Michigan State sports because I love Michigan State University.
I have been attached to MSU for more than 38 years, when I enrolled there in my first time living away from my home in New York. I wasn’t there a week when I was hired to work on the campus radio station and spent four years pursuing my goal of becoming a sportscaster. I have watched with pride as the good public university that I attended became an excellent public university, a place where scientists cure cancer and split atoms, where business executives are taught and leaders in dozens of different fields are shaped. I made friendships that have withstood the passage of almost four decades, am deeply engrossed in alumni affairs as a member of the Chicago Spartans board, and when I walk on campus Friday next week to attend a luncheon honoring scholarship recipients, I will feel as at home as my 17-year-old self did in 1973.
It is also the place where I learned to try and if it didn’t work out, to try and try and try again. That’s why so many of us have taken so strongly to the school’s current marketing slogan: Spartans Will. Because even if we did not this time, we will.