A little more than two weeks ago, Tom Izzo was walking onto the bus inside Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis following a discussion regarding the issues he’s dealt with over the course of the season.
The lack of leadership, Delvon Roe’s continuous knee injuries, Chris Allen’s suspension and the second-half benching of Durrell Summers in that afternoon’s loss to Minnesota in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. Izzo was clearly frustrated and was searching for answers, but as he stepped onto the bus, he had one final message he sent my way:
“Don’t give up on us,” he told me. “I still think we have a shot.”
And Izzo had no clue of what was to come nine days later — when the team’s top player and point guard, Kalin Lucas, would suffer a season-ending torn Achilles’ late in the first half of a thrilling second-round NCAA tournament win against Maryland.
Even prior to Lucas’ injury, I had given up on the Spartans — the same team I picked to win the national title a year ago.
But this wasn’t the same team.
Travis Walton’s leadership was now coming from the sidelines in the form of a graduate manager spot. Last year’s skilled starting center, Goran Suton, is now playing overseas.
This team was abysmal against the Gophers and appeared to have coasted through much of the regular season.
But there’s one small factor that somehow I forgot about.
With all due respect to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, there’s no one better.
Especially come March.
Michigan State’s head coach, following a 70-69 victory over Tennessee on Sunday afternoon, will make his sixth Final Four appearance in the past 12 years. Mind-boggling.
The only other coach who has accomplished that feat since the field expanded to 64 is Coach K.
“I get way too much credit,” Izzo said. “It’s my players.”
Sure, guys like walk-on Mike Kebler, who was on the floor in crunch time having to guard Tennessee’s athletic point guard Bobby Maze.
When a New Mexico State reserve checked into the game in the first round of the tourney and saw Kebler, he laughed and then yelled “iso” at coach Marvin Menzies in an effort to get him the ball in a one-on-one situation.
“The only time I would have guessed I’d have played in an Elite Eight game is if we were up or down 20,” Kebler admitted after the win over the Vols.
Summers, in the span of 16 days, has gone from the doghouse to the Most Outstanding Player in the Midwest Regional. He scored 21 points in the victory against Tennessee — including a huge 3-pointer with 2:45 left — and also had 19 points and seven boards in the win over Northern Iowa in the Sweet 16.
Korie Lucious went from a little-known reserve guard to the full-time starter the moment Lucas’ season ended. He quickly took advantage, knocking down the game-winning 3-pointer as time expired to beat Maryland.
Roe gutted out 20 minutes on Sunday while having to hide from Izzo during timeouts so that his coach wouldn’t catch him writhing in pain. Allen was diagnosed with a torn ligament in the arch of his foot but is another guy who went out and gave the Spartans 29 solid minutes.
Lucious missed the front end of a one-and-one with 28.9 seconds left, and Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson had a chance to give the Vols a lead. However, Hopson made one of two from the line to tie the game at 69-69.
Raymar Morgan was fouled by J.P. Prince with 1.8 seconds left, made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Prince missed a desperation shot from just inside halfcourt to set off a net-cutting celebration which included the entire team hoisting Lucas up so he could snip a piece of the net.
“So much was going through my mind,” Lucas said. “Happy, sad, excited. It was very emotional, and I was trying hard not to cry.”
Izzo was close to tears when he saw Lucas go down against Maryland, thinking like the rest of the country that there was little chance that his team could make any noise in this year’s Big Dance.
However, everything changed when Northern Iowa knocked off Kansas.
“When Kansas lost, we felt that we could get there,” Roe said. “That none of the teams left were better than us.”
“Taking nothing away from Northern Iowa, I think we all felt like we had a shot,” Izzo added.
Now, the Lucas-less Spartans, who had the home-court advantage a year ago when they played in Detroit, will face a Butler team on Saturday night that plays just blocks down the road from downtown Indianapolis.
They will be without their star point guard and with a couple of guys in Roe and Allen that are far less than 100 percent.
But all that matters is that the Spartans have Izzo.