Michigan State, one of many great stories to watch

AUSTIN, Texas – Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was the last to clip the net. When he finished cutting the twine, he took the net and dropped it carefully over Paul Davis' neck.

Somehow, that was fitting after all that Davis and Izzo have been through over the last three years.

Davis, one of the more maligned juniors in the country, is part of an upperclassmen group at Michigan State that had been dissed more so than any other class since Izzo became coach 10 years ago.

The brunt of the criticism has been levied at seniors Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert and Alan Anderson. Why? They couldn't win, at least not enough for the high standards that Izzo had set in East Lansing.

Well, guess which team is leaving Austin for St. Louis? Not Kentucky. Michigan State heads to the Arch behind senior and junior classes that just beat Duke and Kentucky back-to-back to clinch the Spartans' fourth Final Four berth in the past seven seasons.

"This one means the most to me," Izzo said. "I know what these kids have been through and what I've put them through. The one thing that I didn't realize was that every kid I've recruited in 10 years has now been to a Final Four. I used to hear that about [Bob] Knight. It's something that makes me feel real good. That's what you tell kids when you recruit them. This was special."

You could see that in the locker room and in the beaming faces of Hill, who was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman Drew Neitzel; Torbert, who hasn't been a regular starter either; and Davis, who still has another season but has been dogged by hype for years.

"I can't even express the mix of emotions," Hill said. "It's been a four-year road to the Final Four. We've had so many ups and downs and we've had criticism and now to get to the Final Four our senior year – that's the best feeling in the world."

Izzo said when the bracket came out the Spartans looked at who was in their way to St. Louis. They saw Syracuse and then possibly Duke and Kentucky. A potential Final Four matchup with North Carolina was on the docket, too, which would pit assistant coach Doug Wojcik against the school that fired him and the rest of the staff (led by Matt Doherty) two years ago. Guess what? It all played out, save for Vermont's taking the Orange's place.

"It was like the revenge tour," Izzo said. "These were all the teams that beat the daylights out of us the past two years. And then if we played North Carolina, with Doug working there, [it] would add even more irony. This is the way it should be and I told our guys that there's no reason for us to be scared of anything."

Michigan State's upperclassmen making the Final Four after being branded as players who couldn't win the big game is one of the week's best stories. Having Izzo back in the sport's premier event is just as tantalizing. There's no reason why Izzo shouldn't be in the same category of any other "great" coach today with four Final Fours (and one national championship) in his first 10 years as a Division I head coach.

You want more? This Final Four has plenty to offer.

• Louisville's Rick Pitino is going for his second national title after becoming the first coach to take three programs to the Final Four.

A number of players, as well as Pitino, have dealt with personal tragedies that have brought this squad incredibly close. The Cardiac Cards have also dealt with more injuries and comebacks this season than any of the other three teams combined.

• Illinois needs two more wins to claim the national title with just one loss. The Illini have put together one of the most stirring seasons in recent memory and have done it in very entertaining fashion.

• Bruce Weber, whose mother passed away during the Big Ten tournament, is coaching in his first Final Four and is one of the most genuine people in the game. His candor and sincerity will shine at this event.

• North Carolina's Roy Williams is trying to win his first national title after coaching Kansas to four Final Fours.

• The Tar Heels' juniors are trying to complete a remarkable comeback of their own – from coming in off an 8-20 first season to a national title two seasons later.

What will be the buzz for the week?

Jobs: Tennessee is done, having landed Bruce Pearl, so Virginia is the hot coaching topic for the week.

Talkers: North Carolina's Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton will be the most popular at media day on Friday, with Illinois' Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head a close second.

Tickets: As my esteemed colleague Pat Forde pointed out, ticket demand for this Final Four will be extremely hot, given the fan passion all four of these teams carry and the relative proximity and/or easy transit to St. Louis from all four campuses.

The matchup: The anticipated final is Illinois-North Carolina, but there is no clear-cut favorite. You could make a strong case for all four of these teams to win the title. If things pan out that evenly, the Final Four will replicate a wonderful and balanced season.

The encore: How will the Final Four top the Elite Eight weekend? We leave you with Izzo.

"That is going to be hard but the nice thing is that we'll all be fresh," Izzo said. "Everyone is tired. North Carolina is the most talented team and has great athletes, but we have athletes too. We're looking forward to the challenge and we've been the underdog most of the way and rightfully so. We have no problem with that, but it's a nice challenge to have and I'm looking forward to it."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.