INDIANAPOLIS—The run that for so long refused to end did not take long to do so. Michigan State spent March as one of the NCAA tournament’s most stubborn residents, refusing to conform to the expectations of its No. 7 seed. In the Round of 32, the Spartans decisively knocked off Virginia, a legitimate title contender. In the Elite Eight, they came back from down double digits to beat Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino's Louisville squad in overtime. But by halftime of the Spartans’ national semifinal meeting with Duke on Saturday, they were down by 11, reeling and battered by blows from which they would not recover. Within 11 minutes, amid a torrent of turnovers and fouls and breakaway layups, the deficit ballooned to 20. From then on, it seemed, the writing Michigan State had been so determined to keep off the wall was finally appearing.
Tum Tum Nairn Jr., the Spartans’ freshman guard, began to see it with three minutes left. His mind flashed back to his first day on campus last summer, to the work that awaited next year, and when he made his way to the bench a minute later as Michigan State played out the final formalities of an 81-61 loss, his eyes filled with tears. His coach, Tom Izzo, has talked about “the beauty and the terror” of this tournament, and there in Nairn’s crying was both.
“I was just thinking about the whole year, man,” Nairn explained in the locker room after the game, his eyes bloodshot. “I was just thinking about all the good times we had. As a human being, you never want to end on notes like this. But we had a heck of a year, man.”
Indeed it was a season worth retracing, its terror at first threatening and then freighting its eventual beauty with an added layer of appreciation. Izzo has repeatedly talked about his Spartans’ relative lack of talent, a would-be disparagement recast as virtue in light of their success. Michigan State did not have the future NBA players it boasted last year in guard Gary Harris and forward Adreian Payne, and what looked like a team on its way to a mid-level Big Ten finish appeared headed for something worse after a home loss to 1-8 Texas Southern five days before Christmas. A 6-4 start in Big Ten play made its resume bubble-worthy just a month from the tourney’s onset, threatening to snap the program’s streak of 17 consecutive NCAA berths.
Then came the changes, tactical and otherwise. Izzo banned the “Indy!” punctuation of team huddles, so far away did those aspirations seem. He temporarily shifted senior point guard Travis Trice to the bench in favor of Nairn, and played Trice off the ball to free him up to become the Spartans’ leading postseason scorer. The defense tightened. There was a fiery film session after an uninspired home loss to also-ran Illinois on Feb. 7 and a surprising timeout with the team down 11 and three seconds left against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. In that huddle, Izzo told his team to look around the United Center in Chicago, at the disappointed fans filing into the aisles and their teammates’ disappointed faces, and make sure they did not feel that way again.
For three weeks they had staved off a reprisal, and for the first few minutes Saturday it seemed they might delay it once more. The Spartans came out hot, burying a quartet of open threes to rush out to an eight-point lead in the first four minutes. Even better, Jahlil Okafor, the Blue Devils’ gifted star center and potential No. 1 NBA draft pick, had yet to touch the ball in the post, as Michigan State effectively denied entry passes and moved Okafor away from the block. If it was going to take the Spartans' A game to knock off Duke, here it was.
It would not hold much longer. Michigan State missed its next five three-point attempts, and as its outside shooting tanked, so did its offense. For the final six minutes of the half, the Spartans were held without a field goal, flustered by Duke’s ramped-up defensive pressure. “That forced us to take some bad shots and turn the ball over a little bit,” said Denzel Valentine, who finished with a team-high 22 points and 11 rebounds. “We took some bad shots.”
"They were denying us on the wings, kind of turning us down," said Trice, who scored 16 points but made just two of seven three-point attempts. “Any time they had an opportunity, they switched. That’s what made it rough for us."
At the same time, Okafor awakened. Michigan State was persistent in its single coverage with big men Gavin Schilling, Matt Costello, and Colby Wollenman, often keeping a second defender—typically versatile forward Branden Dawson—hanging in the periphery to help if needed. But even when Okafor was unable to establish position inside (and he often was) he found other ways to score: banking in mid-range jumpers from the wing, slamming home put-backs when Costello left him to contest a shot, helping lure Schilling and Costello into foul trouble and earn the early bonuses that helped lead to the Blue Devils shooting 37 free throws to Michigan State’s 16. Okafor finished with 18 points.
“You know, you can blame me for Okafor,” Izzo said, “because personally that’s exactly what we wanted to do. If we could hold him to under 20 points, take away their threes—we did exactly what we wanted to do, to be honest with you.”
The Spartans’ further undoing would be largely self-inflicted. Seemingly any potential second-half spurt was soon kneecapped by a turnover or long tip-out of a defensive rebound after yet another missed shot, sending Duke into fast break after fast break in a second half the Blue Devils spent sprinting toward the rim again and again. “A lot of our turnovers were really unforced,” Trice said. “They were kind of us trying to make the extra play or make the home run play. I think that came to bite us tonight. Usually we don’t do that.”
Said Costello, “You can’t beat a team that’s just dunking the ball with nobody around them.”
Michigan State was this Final Four’s oddest sort of underdog, an uncommon cocktail of expectation (Izzo in March!) and surprise (an 11-loss No. 7 seed among a trio of No. 1s). In the end, its outcome was something more predictable, overwhelmed by Duke’s athleticism and size en route to 29.6% first-half shooting from the floor and a lopsided loss.
“The problem when you get this deep in your schedule like we do is you play good people,” Izzo said. “Some of them are better than you.”
If there was a common regret among the Spartans, it was the disheartening exit for the team’s seniors—Trice, Dawson and walk-on Keenan Wetzel. Last year’s class had been the first to graduate under Izzo without reaching a Final Four, a point of frequent motivation for their successors. That this year’s group denied itself a similar outcome was principally the work of Trice. His hard-earned stardom has been well documented: Once considered a mid-major recruit, in the summer before his sophomore year he lost 20 pounds due to a mysterious brain illness, then missed nine games due to a pair of concussions and played most of last season with an infected blister inside another blister. He said it was too soon for him to fully appreciate the journey in the disappointing wake of its end, but his coach had no such problems appreciating his player’s legacy.
“Just a kid that got everything out of the body he had to deal with,” said Izzo. “He wasn’t big enough, quick enough, strong enough, all those things—healthy enough was the biggest one. Yet he led us to the Final Four… He played with Shabazz Napier kind of momentum and attitude these last three, four, five, six games. It’s fun to watch.”
But for all the Spartans’ appreciation looking back, it did not take long for those returning to shift their focus forward. As he exited the court in the game’s final minute, Valentine, a junior, shook Izzo’s hand and initiated an extended conversation. It took a familiar turn. “I just told him we’re gonna be back here next year,” Valentine said. “He said, all right if you think that you gotta play better. And remember this feeling.”
A reporter asked Valentine if he knew where next year’s Final Four was. It did not take long for Valentine to cut the question short. “Houston,” he said. “Houston.”