Michigan State has gone from the nation’s most underachieving team a year ago to one of the most overachieving teams this season.
The Spartans started last season with high hopes, ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls. They made the NCAA tournament but got knocked out in their first game to finish with a 19-15 record, nowhere to be found in the final Top-25.
Coming into this season, Michigan State wasn’t even ranked after losing Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, not to mention Delvon Roe, who decided to give up basketball a few weeks before practice started because of chronic knee problems.
No one dreamed that the Spartans would be in contention for a top seed come Selection Sunday.
In the case of Lucas and Summers, seniors on last year’s team, their departure was addition by subtraction. Draymond Green could now totally impose his will and leadership on his teammates all day and all night. He was the senior now. There was no longer any doubt about whose voice mattered most in that Spartans locker room. Green’s peers looked to him and no one else.
It helped turn bad chemistry into good chemistry, which has fueled this surge back to the top of the Big Ten.
Although the improved intangibles were quickly noticeable by those close to the program, there were still tangible questions facing coach Tom Izzo’s team.
How would sophomore Keith Appling adjust to being moved from shooting guard to point guard? How would Brandon Wood, a fifth-year senior transfer from Valparaiso, fit in? Could Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix improve enough to overcome the loss of Roe upfront? Would freshmen such as Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Brandan Kearney be ready to contribute right away?
The season opened in unforgettable fashion. Not because of the game, a 67-55 loss to top-ranked North Carolina, but because of the setting — aboard an aircraft carrier in San Diego, an event that had been in the makings for years, to pay tribute to the military.
The Spartans lost again four nights later to No. 6 Duke. An 0-2 start wasn’t too promising, but there were spurts in both games in which Michigan State showed some potential.
The first big hint that something special was coming together arrived nearly a month later, Dec. 10, when the Spartans went out to Spokane, Wash., and upset then-No. 23 Gonzaga in one of the college basketball’s most hostile environments.
Michigan State ended up winning 15 consecutive games from Nov. 18 through Jan. 10, including another surprising road victory at No. 18 Wisconsin in overtime.
More questions arose after an incredibly ugly loss at Illinois, 42-41, on Jan. 31. Did this team have enough offense outside of Green to contend for a Big Ten title?
The Spartans delivered the answer by starting out February with seven straight victories, including an upset at No. 3 Ohio State when the Buckeyes scored only 48 points against MSU’s rapidly improving defense.
Appling still had his ups and downs offensively as a point guard, but there was no denying that his on-the-ball pressure was a big reason for the team’s defensive resurgence. No Michigan State team during the Izzo era was holding opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than this one.
The Spartans went on to wrap up a share of the conference regular-season title with a week to play. But, in retrospect, they probably peaked a little too early. They dropped their final two, including a heartbreaker when they blew a 15-point lead and lost on a last-second shot by Ohio State on the final day.
Instead of winning the title outright, Michigan State shared it with Ohio State and Michigan. What’s more, Dawson suffered a season-ending knee injury against Ohio State.
A day later, the frustration started to subside, if only a little, when Green was named Big Ten Player of the Year and Izzo was honored as the conference’s Coach of the Year.
Why they’ll get to New Orleans: Izzo (35-13 in NCAA Tournament games) has the blueprint for what it takes to win in March. They’ve played a extremely challenging schedule, won tough games on the road, play solid defense and Green is determined to complete his career with a national championship.
Why they’ll flame out early: The loss of Dawson leaves Michigan State without its most athletic player. That’s going to be a factor sooner or later. There just wasn’t much room for error to begin with for this team.
Key to their title hopes: Appling not only has to play a solid floor game, he needs to start making shots to give the team more scoring punch to go with Green’s steady production. Appling shot 41.1 percent from three-point range last season. He’s making 24.1 percent this season, including 6-for-42 (14.3 percent) in his last 17 games.