Despite Snub, Smart Money’s on Sparty

They’re short on glitz, but long on substance.

They don’t blow you out -they wear you down, with the consistency of a conveyor belt and the work ethic of a hardhat on steroids.

Projected one and dones know to look elsewhere.

It’s not that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo would reject a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram or any other top talent guy appearing on his doorstep, but “he goes after the guys he feels can have the most success in his system. Those are the guys he recruits,” says former star Mateen Cleaves, who led the Spartans to Izzo’s only national championship in 2000.

Their three leading scorers this year are seniors, and the best of them, Denzel Valentine, is a case study in incremental improvement. His latest strides forward make him the leading candidate for player of the year. Matt Costello, the burly fourth-year power forward, has improved his scoring and rebounding stats each year. Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State, is the nation’s leading 3-point shooter.

While many of Izzo’s prominent coaching peers are dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, recruiting violations, player arrests, and pervasive grade tampering, the closest thing to a scandal involving Izzo or his players is a failure to fall back on defense during practice. Recently, 68-year-old Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was compelled to resign early because of the revelation of an extramarital affair. The chances of that happening to Izzo are roughly equal to the likelihood of Donald Trump being caught at confession.

Purity, toughness, and attention to detail are the hallmarks of the Michigan State program, and it’s working. In Izzo’s 21 years at Michigan State, he’s taken the Spartans to seven final fours and nineteen consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including this year’s affair, which begins tonight with the play-in games at Dayton, Ohio.

All of those good qualities were necessary for the Spartans to get by Maryland Saturday in the Big Ten Conference semi-finals and Purdue Sunday in the finals. Befitting a tough, experienced team coached by a mastermind, the Spartans made every big play down the stretch to outlast the talented Terps and Boilermakers.

Nine Spartans dented the box score in the first half as MSU sprinted to a 36-24 lead. Maryland’s starting team is as good as any quintet in the country, but the Terps get little contribution from their bench. Nevertheless, their defense tightened, and when center Diamond Stone backed in on 6’10” freshman Davante Davis with 30 seconds to go and Maryland trailing by a point, the game was up for grabs. At the top of his jump, well above the basket, and with the ball about to start its descent, Davis rejected Stone’s baby hook to preserve the victory.

Davis saves the day

Purdue mounted no less an effort the next day. Two plays by Valentine encapsulated the contribution of this consummate team leader. After an 8-0 second half run by Purdue which narrowed the Spartans lead to 46-47, Valentine lost his dribble and stumbled to the ground. En route, he lofted a desperation lob to Davis at the rim, who stuffed it through.

Somehow, the ball always gets back to Valentine at critical moments. Ahead 62-61 with less than a minute to go and the shot clock running down, Valentine began his signature move across the painted area. He was stuffed, but double clutched and managed to get the shot off. It swished, and the Spartans closed out the victory and another Big Ten championship.

After those weekend heroics, there was no question that Michigan State had earned a number one seed in the tournament. Except they didn’t. To most pundits’ surprise, the Spartans were relegated to a number two seed in the Midwest Region. Perhaps the result was necessitated by the late ending of the game on Sunday, just an hour or two before the brackets were to be announced. The selection committee may have wanted to avoid a last-minute scramble.

But Michigan State shrugged off the slight. Last year, they reached the Final Four as a number 7 seed. And in 2014 and 2015, they defeated Virginia, this year’s number one seed in the Midwest and their likely opponent in the round of eight. And they have a relatively easy path to the quarterfinals.

The toughest region is the South, where overall number one seed Kansas will meet the winner of Maryland and California in the Sweet Sixteen. Balanced and deep, Kansas lacks star power. No one on its roster is likely to have a productive NBA career. When Maryland meets California in the round of 32, the game will feature at least four future pros. Should Kansas prevail over Maryland or Cal, both Miami and Villanova will present stern tests for the Jayhawks.

The West region is the weakest, but upstart number one seed Oregon is unlikely to last long. Should the Ducks quack their way by St Joseph and the winner of Duke-Baylor, battle-tested Oklahoma will be too much in the round of eight.

In the East, despite overriding talent, number one seed North Carolina appears to lack the “Je ne sais quoi” of a champion. They melted down late against Duke on February 17th, do not shoot that well, and often suffer defensive lapses.

No such problems with Michigan State. If the Final Four match-up between Carolina and MSU comes down to late-game execution, or to a battle of wits between UNC’s Roy Williams and Izzo, the smart money’s on the Spartans, where winning is a habit.


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