Kentucky is going for the first perfect season in nearly four decades.
Duke and Wisconsin look gaudy enough with their No. 1 seeds.
It would be easy to forget about Sparty at this Final Four.
That also would be a mistake.
Overlooked and underrated all season, Michigan State is not some cuddly underdog that made its year simply by getting it to Indianapolis. No, this coach and this group of players are more than capable of cutting down the nets come Monday night.
It wouldn’t even be that much of an upset.
“I would be the first to admit that a month and a half ago I questioned where we are,” coach Tom Izzo said Friday. “But we’ve earned our right to be here, too. So we’re not going to apologize anymore.”
Granted, the Spartans (27-11) have lost more games than the other three teams combined.
But they’ve won 12 of their last 15, and two of the defeats went to overtime. The only game the Spartans weren’t really competitive in during that span was a 68-61 loss at Wisconsin, when they trailed by 22 in the second half before rallying down the stretch to make it more respectable.
In fact, five of Michigan State’s losses were in OT.
“They’re six possessions away from having 30-something wins or being a number one or number two seed,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team will face the Spartans in Saturday’s semifinals. “That’s how crazy our game is, because they’ve been in so many close games.”
What makes us believe Michigan State has a chance to finish the job in Indy?
Start with the guy on the sideline.
Amazingly, given the coaching royalty that reached the Final Four — Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan are certainly no slouches — Izzo might be the best of them all at getting the most out of his team in March and April.
His record in the NCAA tournament is 46-16, a winning percentage of .741 that is only slightly behind Coach Cal (.770) and Coach K (.767), even though those two clearly had more talented teams over the years.
Beyond Izzo, the Spartans have plenty of experience and depth in the backcourt. For all the talk about Kentucky’s imposing size, it’s tough to win a championship without stellar guard play.
Michigan State fits the bill. The top scorers are senior Travis Trice and junior Denzel Valentine. Junior Bryn Forbes provides the best 3-point threat off the bench. Freshman Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. adds energy, quickness and leadership beyond his years — not to mention the most dazzling name at the Final Four.
Izzo certainly remembers being done in a year ago by UConn guard Shabazz Napier in the regional final. While the coach wouldn’t compare either of his starters to Napier, he sure has plenty of confidence in what they can do as a tandem.
“They’re two coaches’ sons, and they act like them,” Izzo said. “That makes them very valuable to this team.”
The Spartans are a bit undersized, which will become an even bigger headache if they get past Duke and face Kentucky (38-0) in the championship game (assuming the Wildcats beat Wisconsin in the other semi).
Michigan State’s playing rotation includes only two players taller than 6-foot-6; Kentucky’s nine-deep behemoth has only one player shorter than that. Everyone struggles to match up with the Wildcats’ front line, but the 6-0 Trice and 5-10 Nairn would also have their hands full against Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
Don’t expect the Spartans to be intimidated by anyone, however.
After being seeded seventh by the NCAA selection committee, they opened the tournament with an impressive victory over a Georgia team that gave Kentucky all it could handle late in the regular season. After that, Michigan State knocked off a second seed (Virginia), a third seed (Oklahoma) and a fourth seed (Louisville) — the toughest road conquered by any of the Final Four teams.
“They’ve had an underdog mentality all March, people counting them out because they had a couple of losses,” Duke’s Quinn Cook said. “It’s going to be a tough, tough game. They’re here for a reason.”
If the Spartans need another shot of confidence, they’ve certainly taken note of the team that won the title a year ago.
UConn, which denied Michigan State a trip to the Final Four, went on to take the championship as a No. 7 seed.
“It tells you that no seed matters,” Izzo said. “It’s how your guys play. The energy that our guys have played with, the enthusiasm, I’m amazed. We had two practices at home (before traveling to Indy). We got better in those practices. That shouldn’t happen at this time of year.”
Better keep an eye on Sparty at this Final Four.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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