Final Four Storylines: Michigan State Edition

Posted by Henry Bushnell on April 4th, 2015

The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. We’ve already covered the three top seeds, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke. Finally, here’s Michigan State.

Tom Izzo (USA Today Images)

Is Tom Izzo’s Group a Team of Destiny? (USA Today Images)

What a turnaround. There are so many specific December and January days to which to point. Think back to December 20 and the stunning loss to Texas Southern. Recall January 24 and the defeat at Nebraska that resulted in a 13-7 (4-3 Big Ten) record. Consider February 7 and the ugly loss at home to Illinois. All of those days tell the same story: Michigan State just wasn’t very good. It’s that simple. The Spartans didn’t look at all like a Tom Izzo-coached team. They lacked talent, cohesiveness and an identity. But more than anything else, cohesiveness and an identity is exactly what they’ve found, and it’s what has enabled this run. Michigan State isn’t stocked with NBA prospects or McDonald’s All-Americans, but every contributing player has learned over the course of the season to excel in his role, and that’s why Sparty is here.

Izzo in March. Frankly, it has ascended to the level of an indisputable phenomenon. Tom Izzo just wins in March — there’s no two ways about it. And not only is the idea firmly entrenched in the minds of fans, and not only does it appear on any show or in any article that discusses Michigan State, it is also backed up by numbers. Izzo’s teams consistently outperform their seed in the NCAA Tournament, more so than any other program in the modern era. What makes the success even more impressive is that Izzo has done it as both a favorite and an underdog. Michigan State reached the Final Four three straight years as a 1-seed from 1999-2001, and then twice got there as a 5-seed in 2005 and 2010. This year, Izzo is back as a 7-seed. Now, technically it’s not March anymore. But in the college basketball world, it’s still March through Monday. And it’s still Izzo in March. And it’s going to take an exceedingly good performance to disrupt the Spartans’ record of postseason success.’

The Travis Trice/Shabazz Napier comparisons are inevitable. The two players don’t exactly share a common skillset, but what Trice has done over the past four games is uncannily similar to what Napier did just a year ago. First of all, there are the teams’ situations. Both entered the NCAA Tournament as programs that had had past NCAA Tournament success, but as teams that had underperformed during the regular season. For that reason, both were also 7-seeds, but to some extent were sexy picks to make a surprising charge through the Tournament. That’s where the two players come in. Without Napier, the Huskies likely wouldn’t have even made it out of the first round. But after the senior guard saw off St. Joe’s with 9 points in overtime, nothing could stop him. Napier propelled UConn all the way to a national championship in convincing fashion. Michigan State hasn’t reached that point yet, but a year later, Trice is willing his team to victory game after game, just as Napier did. Trice’s drive, a product of past failures, has been irrefutable, and his “refuse to lose” attitude overwhelming. His performances have epitomized the Michigan State’s revitalization.

‘Team of destiny.’ You’ve heard the phrase thrown around here and there ever since Michigan State knocked off Virginia in the second round. But now even Izzo is uttering those three words to his team to punctuate postgame speeches. With every win, the thought has picked up steam, and after another second half comeback, it is stronger than ever. As I wrote a week ago, it’s fair to question whether such a team can in fact exist. But often in sports — seemingly more often than should be the case — improbable outcomes occur in waves, one after another, thus creating the feeling of a ‘team of destiny’ who triumphs despite the odds. This could be one of those cases. Michigan State will be an underdog Saturday, and again on Monday should it get there, but at this point, nothing the Spartans do can be considered surprising.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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