Don’t mistake Spartan Basketball’s Euphoria with Relaxation Now That They’ve Reached Indy. This Team Wants More!

Hondo S. Carpenter

Don’t mistake Spartan Basketball’s Euphoria with Relaxation Now That They’ve Reached Indy. This Team Wants More!

I can’t tell you the number of times, my colleagues and I have heard Tom Izzo wanting rematches with teams that they have lost against previously. I am convinced it is one of his secrets in playing a tough schedule early. The last time MSU and Duke played earlier this year, it was in Indianapolis as well and the Blue Devils took care of MSU 81-71.

While Duke has improved, so have the Spartans. Tom Izzo and his gang of green aren’t just excited to be in Indy, they want to play Duke. And the Spartans have improved more than the Devils.

After beating a more talented and athletic Louisville the Spartans couldn’t hide their euphoria, but that didn’t mean they aren’t still hungry. Izzo made no bones about it. Immediately after the game his first words were, “So as a football fan, we're not going to Disney, but we are going to Indy. We're excited about it.”

Denzel Valentine said to really understand their heart you had to go back to the summer after last year’s hurtful loss to another seven seed in UCONN who eventually won the title. “You know, you just take a look back and think about all the hard work you put in in the summer, all the hard work in the fall and spring, and all those times where you're working, waking up in the morning, and you're like, oh, I don't feel like doing this, but you have a team full of great guys that, in the summer, we would all text each other, "Indy, Indy, Indy." We would say that every huddle. Through an up-and-down season, we stayed together, stayed strong, believed in ourselves. We had upper-classmen step up and make plays, and now we're going to Indy.”

Trice said it was in the disappointing soil of last year’s loss that this team harvested the fruit of success for this run. Something many overlook. “Looking back, I'm kind of happy that we did lose last year because it makes us feel so much better to be on the other side of it. It's been motivation. I think it's made, especially us three over here, a lot better. It's added extra motivation for us in the summer, in the fall, even in practice. We push harder now than we ever have. I feel like it's brought not only us three closer but our whole program together. Losing last year the way we did, especially with the expectation, it's just added to this year. It just makes it so much better.”

You may remember the Wisconsin fans booing Tom Izzo at the Big Ten tournament. Someone the Spartans had taken the heavily favored Badgers to overtime, but the game was out of reach. Izzo called a timeout with the game clearly over and seconds left on the clock. He said at the time he wanted the team to soak in the hurt. To feel it and use it for more than just a memory, he waned motivation.

Izzo said its working as this team continues to win. “This is a bigger banner. I don't know if it will be in size, but it will be in meaning. I didn't know right then. I said I thought after we beat Illinois there and Northwestern, I just saw this team getting a little tougher, and I started really picturing them. We played pretty good in some games. We'd lose to Maryland when we had that two-point lead or three-point lead with two seconds left. Everyone thought Maryland was an average team, and all of a sudden, Maryland is a top-ten team. We lose to Notre Dame when we had that lead and some free throws, and all of a sudden, they're a top-ten team. We lose to Kansas, and all of a sudden, they are. Yeah, we lost some games. We lost them mostly at the free-throw line, but we were in them. I did believe in that. I can't sit here and I'd like to tell you I thought five different times this year we were good enough to get to a Final Four, but I'd be lying to you. I can't even say I did. I just wasn't sure we had enough size, enough talent in certain areas. And then Trav came along and started playing. We got beat by a team with Shabazz Napier, who I thought took the whole team and put them on his back personally. I know people always talk about we need good guard play. Our guards are playing better, but he's been electric and done so much. So the answer is no, I wasn't really planning on working this late, but, God, I love to work at this time of year. I just love to work at this time of year.”

Izzo admitted it was he who cut his team’s battle cry about the Final Four off. That is a move that has paid dividends in the post season. “This team had a battle cry all summer of getting to Indy, and I ended that about the end of January, beginning of February. I said, "That's over. We're not talking about Indy. We're not worthy of it. We haven't played well enough. We haven't played hard enough." So I used it the other way. And never was brought up again in that locker room. We got to huddle up, say where we're going, and there was some moments to that statement. It was pretty cool the way the guys felt about it, pretty cool.”

So with potentially two games left, can Izzo quantify where this team’s run to a Final Four ranks among his seven? Not a chance. It isn’t over. “Where this will go, I don't know. If I say it's the best one ever, I'll have the team calling and threatening me. If I say it was one of the surprise teams, I'll have Kalin and them calling me. If I say it was my favorite, Draymond will be mad for no longer than life. Alan Anderson just texted me last night, he was part of the '05 team, that if he hadn't gotten hurt, we'd have had a chance to win it that year. They were all different in a lot of ways, but I think this was the most improbable because the team had lost some games and we had gone through some things. Unlike '10, where maybe the route to the Final Four was a little easier because some teams got upset. You can say the 1 seed did, but we played -- what did we play? The 2, the 3, the 4, Georgia -- to me, Georgia was a very good team, just as worthy as those other three I just mentioned. So we got here the hard way. We earned our way here. I'm not going to apologize for that in any way, shape, or form. And as far as the -- I have no idea who's going to win that game. I have great respect for both. If Duke wins it, Mike and I have had a lot of battles. He's really enjoy it because he's won, I think, nine of them, and I think I've won one. So that's tough. If it's Gonzaga, Jud Heathcote is in for a hell of a week. So either way, I think there's problems for me. But I'm just glad we're going and see what we can do.”

I can tell you this. If the Spartans season ends Saturday night this will be his best coaching job of the last 18 seasons. He needs no more wins to accomplish that. If they somehow win the next two, it will be the best coaching job in college basketball history. That is gigantic.

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