Michigan State's December gave no indications of impending greatness. They beat Gonzaga, but lost to North Carolina and Texas, both losses that look much worse in the rearview mirror than they did when one first drove by. They also lost to Florida at home, a defeat that is hardly emblemetic of a team about to rise to the top. But when Big Ten play came, they found another gear. It wasn't spectacular, but it was ruthlessly consistent. Playing a first-half conference schedule built on home games and winnable road ones, they rolled out to a 9-0 start and a three-game lead. They still had tough road trips ahead of them, but with this kind of cushion it was all but over. Or so this writer thought.
A trip to Wisconsin brought their first Big Ten loss. That was no shame, but more alarming was the fact Kalin Lucas sprained his ankle. With their star point guard and defending league MVP either on the shelf or playing in recover mode, MSU lost two more, at Illinois and home against Purdue and their lead in the standings was gone in the blink of an eye. A home loss to Ohio State seemed to have ended their title hopes and foreshadowed an early March exit.
The Spartans got some justice with a late-season trip to West Lafayette with their Big Ten hopes in the balance. This was the first game Purdue played without Robbie Hummel, and Lucas was fully integrated back into the MSU lineup. They got a grinding 53-44 win and it set them up to finish in a three-way tie for the conference championship. Nonetheless, after an overtime loss in the tournament to Minnesota, Sparty still had the feel of a team that just didn't quite have it this year.
Nothing that happened in the first round really changed any minds, as State struggled past New Mexico State. Then the first break came on their day off before the second round. Kansas was knocked out one step before they could draw the Maryland-Michigan State winner. Living here in Baltimore, I heard people at the office talking excitedly about the Terps not having to face Kansas. Turned out they didn't get to face Northern Iowa either. Michigan State hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win 85-83, but Lucas was again lost to injury, this time a calf that knocked him out the rest of the tournament. NIU was a manageable opponent and MSU advanced, but surely #2 seed Ohio State would end their run, right? Wrong. The Buckeyes were knocked out by Tennessee, another opponent that was manageable for a shorthanded team. Michigan State took full advantage of the opportunity and won again.
Now another opportunity presents itself. Instead of Syracuse or Kansas State, they get to play Butler in Saturday's first national sem-final. Izzo will run a three-guard offense with Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Korie Lucious, the latter playing in Lucas' stead. Summers is the top scorer in the group, although Lucious showed what he could do as the hero of the Maryland game. Michigan State is not a big team, with Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe both being more small forward types. Only Draymond Green, a tough rebounder, is a true inside man and he comes off the bench. They do it with finesse, and they do it with coaching and teamwork. Last year's finalist had a healthy Lucas and a physical center in Goran Suton. This year's edition of MSU doesn't have any of that. But they still have the man on the sideline and they still have fate smiling on them in its choice of opponents and that's a potent combination in March.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at Butler. And The Baseball Notebook continues its preseason picks with the NL Central today.