Tom Izzo is headed to his seventh Final Four in 20 seasons, but none more unlikely than this.
The above is a rough interpretation of my phone calls to the biggest Michigan State fans in my life immediately following their basketball upset of the Louisville Cardinals to earn a spot in next weekend’s Final Four.
A lot of green and white faithful thought we saw this team coming from a mile away. This team was the one that lost three professional-caliber players.
That team (2014’s) was supposed to be the squad that safeguarded the ‘every four-year player who plays for Tom Izzo makes a Final Four’ narrative. They, tragically, did not, and nobody expected the streak to re-start with this squad.
This team was sometimes about who wasn’t here: namely Kentucky freshman point guard Tyler Ulis and Duke freshman post Jahlil Okafor—two Chicagoland recruits who slipped through Izzo’s recruiting net.
This team was too often about the flaws in the players who were here. Forward Branden Dawson is an absurdly talented athlete with an unmeasurable vertical who has a range as long as his reach and a handle that makes a Styrofoam cooler look dependable. Swingman Denzel Valentine has a savvy court presence and the infuriating ability to play 150 mph faster than any of his teammates, leading to a lot of passes that sail into row 7. Point guard Travis Trice never really got to develop his skills as a true Izzo point—he was hurt early in his career and by his senior year was more of a combo guard forced to run a machine which was out-of-synch.
This team lost horrid games—one early-season matchup with Texas Southern, at home, and another to Illinois, again at the Breslin Center, to drop the team to 15-8 just last month. It made the wrong pass—like Valentine’s gift of a turnover to the Wisconsin Badgers that let Bo Ryan’s bunch cinch the Big Ten Tournament title. It took strange shots, struggled with every single ranked team it faced until the tournament and generally looked like one of Izzo’s squads which would just bridge the gap between true contenders.
Izzo teams are always coached to have a love for good defense that appears borderline psychopathic—he’d gladly pull off a Say Anything boom-box moment in front of a recruit’s home if he thought a kid was good at slipping under a screen to stay in front of his man.
But there were always a few things about this team that piqued your curiosity.
In theory, transfer guard Bryn Forbes from Cleveland State was a lights-out three point specialist; exactly what a team like this needed. And, Dawson displayed an elite rebounding talent, a talent so special and so singular that an NBA GM might well look past his inability to dribble competently and his beyond broken J and spend a draft pick on him just to see what’s what.
Valentine, at times, looks like a mad, gap-toothed savant, snapping off passes you don’t comprehend until a post player slams it home. Izzo teams are always coached to have a love for good defense that appears borderline psychopathic—he’d gladly pull off a Say Anything boom-box moment in front of a recruit’s home if he thought a kid was good at slipping under a screen to stay in front of his man.
Still, putting it all together seemed out of the question for this team. Outside of Dawson, it didn’t have any sure-thing professional talents. But then it started clicking. Some will point to the move to work Trice more as an off-guard and start freshman Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn at the point. Strictly based on my affinity for his namesakes, the little brother in Three Ninjas and the voice behind You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine, I wouldn’t fight you on that one.
Others will point to the fact that this isn’t some sort of Cinderella.
Izzo is headed to his seventh Final Four in 20 seasons—more than one-third of his campaigns have ended this way. Dawson was a McDonald’s All-American, and talents like Trice, Valentine, injured freshman forward Javon Bess and Forbes would be great gets for anyone not named Calipari.
Whatever the reason, this is the team that’s headed to Indianapolis, the team that put it together at the exact right time with spit, grit, glue and Trice’s faith in Jesus and his ability to bury to a triple after stepping through two defenders from 35 feet out as the clock expires.
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