Tuesday, March 27|
MSU's single-minded goal ... repeat
By Andy Katz
ATLANTA -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo stood in a locker room at Chicago's United Center two weeks ago and questioned his team's desire to get to the Final Four. He had reason. Michigan State had just been outhustled and outworked and played with less of a sense of urgency than Penn State in a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss.
Izzo wondered aloud if the Spartans had the drive and intensity that Mateen Cleaves demanded from his teammates a year ago in almost willing them to the national title.
"That loss really hurt us and it opened the eyes for some of our younger guys," Michigan State senior Andre Hutson said. "It definitely let them know that we have to take each tournament game seriously. You have to limit your mistakes. These teams are playing hard. Guys made a better commitment to each other."
Izzo's post-Penn State analysis was directed to a bunch of reporters. The team got the real speech, but a coach can only do so much. The players had to want the Final Four.
"He challenged us and told us it was up to us and he was going to leave it alone," Hutson said. "We told him we were willing to make another commitment to win a national championship."
Michigan State's run to a remarkable three straight Final Fours and a chance to defend the national title culminated Sunday at the South Regional in Atlanta with a 69-62 gritty victory over Temple. The Owls, like Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, were the fan favorite against the Spartans. Everyone outside of East Lansing it seemed wanted John Chaney to get to his first Final Four.
But the Spartans weren't about to give the Owls a free ride by folding. It's not in their nature. The identity of this Spartans team came through again like it had in each of the first four games of this tournament. Michigan State has overwhelming offensive depth and ability to wear teams down defensively.
Sunday's offensive hero was the unknown David Thomas. Thomas, the Spartans' equivalent of a utility infielder the past four seasons, was averaging a rather unimpressive five points a game. Temple's matchup zone covers the known by swallowing up the better offensive players but it gambles on the unknown.
Thomas scored a career-high 19 points, making 8 of 10 shots and a critical 3-pointer when Temple got close. Thomas made only two 3s all year.
"It was somewhat of a dream come true, but if we can win another national championship, it will feel even better," Thomas said. "I just made shots. When we play, you have to be ready to step up and my teammates were finding me and my shots were falling."
|Zach Randolph, right, got the his senior teammates' message loud and clear. Sunday's 14-rebound performance against Temple was his latest solid effort under the basket.
Thomas' perimeter prowess and Zach Randolph's three assists -- including one to Thomas for the 3-pointer that gave Michigan State a 65-57 lead with a minute left -- and board work (14 rebounds) off the bench were two of the three offensive stories. Having Jason Richardson glide from one end of the baseline to the other for a reverse layup to push Michigan State's lead to six with three minutes left when Temple's zone looked like it had shut down the Spartans again was the third storyline.
But the Spartans' toughness and tenacity on defense has once again defined this team. Temple couldn't get its offense in groove in the first half, as the Owls shot 1 of 10 on 3s. Center Kevin Lyde was active enough for 14 points by making 7 of 9 shots. But Quincy Wadley couldn't shake Thomas and Lynn Greer couldn't get Charlie Bell out of his face. The Spartans shifted their emphasis in the second half, doubling Lyde to make his life miserable (3 of 8 in the second half).
"They played great team defense," Greer said. "Every time you got by someone, there was always someone else there helping out. They have great recovery and get in your face on every shot."
"They are very physical and that throws your shot off," Wadley said.
"We knew about how well they rebound the ball coming into the game, so I knew it would be physical," Lyde said. "They are a tough team to beat inside."
The little things surfaced again for the Spartans throughout this tournament. The loose balls, the long rebounds, the second and third shots. They continued to wear teams down and, in the end, they are back in the Final Four for the third straight season.
But, while they might be the defending national champs, they're likely to enter the Final Four as the least likely of the four to win the title. At least that's the line Izzo is feeding his team as they head to Minneapolis.
"Last year we rolled into the Final Four but this year, along every path, it was harder," Izzo said. "We played America's team (Gonzaga) and then America's coach (Chaney)."
The Spartans were celebratory Sunday, but not too giddy. Izzo said the players are essentially drained from playing three different teams in three games -- Fresno State's wide-open style; Gonzaga's more traditional inside-out, penetration, drive and pass out game; and Temple's matchup zone.
The Spartans ended up dominating the backboard against Temple (43-27), winning the battles on points in the paint (28-26), second-chance points (19-14) and fast-break points (12-2). In the end, it was the definition of this Spartan team, one that has a legit chance to win the title again.
"Some people have been doubting us and we keep proving them wrong," Richardson said. "We have a business-like approach for the whole tournament. This is not a vacation. Our seniors have kept our heads on straight for us."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
||Some people have been doubting us
and we keep proving them wrong. We have a
business-like approach for the whole tournament.
This is not a vacation. Our seniors have kept our
heads on straight for us. ”
||— Jason Richardson,
Michigan State sophomore