Friday, March 25, 2005
Michigan State is peaking at the right time
By Andy Katz
Michigan State was a tough sell.
In the two regular-season games I witnessed in person, the Spartans had major questions about themselves.
Michigan State beat George Mason back in December in the consolation game of the BB&T Classic at the MCI Center in Washington D.C. But the postgame was filled with self-doubt. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo stood outside the court, looking at George Washington play Maryland for the championship of the four-team event and wondered if he would ever see his players play up to their potential.
He said he was waiting for junior Paul Davis to treat every game the same instead of going through long droughts, especially against lesser opponents. When Davis emerged from the postgame, he questioned his own toughness and whether or not he could be an All-American.
Cut to nearly six weeks later. The Spartans were geeked up to host then-undefeated Illinois. They thought for sure that they could hand the Illini their first loss. Not quite. The Illini overwhelmed Michigan State. The game never matched the hype.
So, what would you think? Not much. And then when watching the Spartans on television, you see them collapse in the final two minutes at Wisconsin. And in the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans couldn't close out Iowa in a must-win game for the Hawkeyes.
So, we ask again, what would you think?
Well, Michigan State assistant coach Doug Wojcik, who will be the next Tulsa coach when this season ends, said last week in Worcester that we singled out the only blemishes for the Spartans. He made it clear that this was a sound team that was ready to prove it was a contender.
Izzo always believed this too. Izzo has the respect of his players to the point that he could remove senior Chris Hill from the starting lineup after the Illinois loss and put in freshman Drew Neitzel at the point. The move worked as the Spartans cruised through the rest of the season, save a blip at Indiana and the loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament.
The Spartans were a trendy No. 5 seed to be upset in the first round because of the aforementioned warts in big games. Sure, the Spartans did beat Minnesota (twice) and took out Wisconsin at home. But they were still a hard team to buy into with a classic mid-major upset-minded team in Old Dominion as their first-round opponent.
Michigan State did hold off Old Dominon and then put an epilogue on Vermont's Cinderella run last Sunday. Even so, why should anyone believe they could beat Duke in the regional semifinal?
This team was peaking at the right time but no one seemed to pay attention. ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla picked Michigan State to reach the Final Four. He was in the minority. The Spartans are one game away from reaching their ultimate quest, a goal that few would have believed plausible during the regular season.
Yet, Izzo was patient with this group, maybe more so than any other in his tenure in East Lansing.
If he had been too down on this group, a collection of players who had to deal with being labeled underachievers the past three years, he could have lost them. Instead, he mixed and matched lineups and stayed with Davis and Hill. Both are key players to this team. They needed his direction and he delivered, and so have they.
Davis scored 20 points and grabbed 12 boards in the win over Duke. Hill was on the bench, clapping and cheering on Neitzel down the stretch.
So much has been made of some of the best coaching jobs by legendary coaches like Rick Pitino (Louisville), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and Lute Olson (Arizona). But don't forget about Izzo. He should be right at the top of this list. He has masterfully crafted a team that truly believes it hadn't played its best games until the NCAA Tournament.
They are now and they might not stop until they cut down the nets in St. Louis.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.