CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Michigan State forward Branden Dawson did something funny Friday afternoon. Not “haha” funny or “LOLZ” funny, but more funny in the sense that you wondered if his coach would smile and try to throw him through a window.
The Spartans had beaten Georgia, 70-63. Dawson was asked about Michigan State’s NCAA tournament experience being a factor, and he said, “We kept our poise throughout the game.” He also said: “You just have to play smart, like Coach has been telling us throughout the season: play hard and smart. That's what I did, played hard and smart even though I was in foul trouble.”
You could say a lot of nice things about Michigan State Friday, but “kept their poise” was not on the list. “Played smart” was not there either. Dawson was only in foul trouble in the first place because he picked up a dumb one in the first half. And for a few tense moments, it looked like the Spartans were trying to give away a hard-earned win, which has been a habit of theirs this year. They missed a layup, committed turnovers and generally looked like they were playing basketball while trying to fill out a bracket.
Coach Tom Izzo listened to Dawson talk about how smart his team played. He looked amused. And then, when it was Izzo’s turn to talk, he told the truth: “I've got to tell you, it's an out-of-body experience once in a while, the things we do for no reason."
It is. The Spartans are not that talented, by Michigan State standards. And yet, they play hard and keep winning, and they now enter a Sunday matchup that should pique the interest of every college basketball fan.
Michigan State plays Virginia, and forget about the seeds. You probably already have, anyway. Who cares if the Cavaliers are No. 2 in the South and the Spartans are the No. 7? If you have watched college basketball since 1999, aren’t you just dying to pick Michigan State? Maybe you have already done that, too.
The Spartans have made six Final Fours since '99. In 2005 they did it as a No. 5 seed. In 2010 they did it as a No. 5 again. They had the good fortune of being placed in the weakest region this time. When the bracket came out, you could very easily talk yourself into a classic Izzo Final Four run. Now that the Spartans are one game closer, what’s not to like?
The Michigan State-Virginia became even more tantalizing when the Cavaliers needed almost all 40 minutes to pull away from No. 15 seed Belmont. It was a reminder that, with its slow pace and low point totals, Virginia keeps virtually every opponent in the game. It is hard to envision a blowout Sunday.
So where does this go? Do the Spartans play with the poise that Dawson claims they have and win? Or do the Cavaliers play with the poise they really do have and win? One advantage for Virginia: Everything it does is methodical. It’s not like the Cavaliers are used to relying on athleticism and can get frustrated.
“If we let the stakes seep into our mind … the way we play, we have to play very calm and very poised,” junior Mike Tobey said. “If we let that bother us, we would be in trouble.”
They don’t let it bother them. Michigan State does, and it’s hard to figure out why. Izzo thinks his players might get worn out; they have had to fight for almost every one of their 24 wins this year, because they aren’t good enough to coast against everybody. He tells his players to play hard, play well and play smart. Then they go out and play hard, play well, and wait, Coach, was there anything else?
“For the most part, we play hard,” Izzo said. “A lot of times we play good. Now, the third one, that's got to fall on me because we're just not playing as smart as we need to play in certain situations, and it’s cost us.”
In the final minutes against Georgia, Izzo yelled at Dawson so many times, I thought he would lose his voice. And yet, Dawson was an absolute beast at times in the second half. That’s how Dawson has been his whole career: His mental motor shuts off at random times, but he can be a game-changing force when it’s on.
Izzo is right when he says: “I think it's pretty easy to see we're not a typical Michigan State team. We don't have maybe as much talent as we’ve had.” But for that reason, the Spartans enter the Round of 32 knowing their season has already been a success. They weren’t supposed to make a deep tournament run this year. But every now and then, you see a glimmer, and it makes you think they will.