The Spartan Nation Basketball Weekly: Final Four Edition

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Ohio State may not be left in the dance, but we honor their cheer team.  Phot courtesy of Kevin Krzeminski.

Ohio State may not be left in the dance, but we honor their cheer team. Phot courtesy of Kevin Krzeminski.

The Survivors Advance, to yet Another Final Four

How did they do it? How did these Spartan Survivors manage to get through another NCAA weekend? By most accounts, they had no prayer to get past Northern Iowa, or the head band-saluting Volunteers of Tennessee. You could say they looked the opposite of a “team of destiny.” In fact, many experts predicted their destiny was a 1st Round exit to the classless and trash talking New Mexico St. team.

Explaining how a team that loses their best player early in the 2nd round, just when they’re starting to play their best ball of the year, and somehow survives to make their second straight Final Four (and sixth in the last twelve years), is more than a mouthful. Losing Lucas was comparable to Texas losing QB Colt McCoy in January’s BCS Title Game. How did that work out for Texas?

But as we discussed in last week’s edition, the 2010 team found their true identity through this tournament, as survivors. Who would’ve thought that the Spartans’ “perfect storm” to ultimate cohesiveness would include a 1st round exit from the Big Ten Tournament, getting stiffed by the NCAA Selection Committee, and losing two starting Guards during the first weekend of the Dance.

Every Spartan was needed for this improbable run to come together. They couldn’t have done it any other way. As a result, the 2010 trip has probably become more of a “program run” than any of the previous five. It should not be taken for granted. Just look around at other top programs watching from the couch, or NIT (UNC).

There was no room for error after Lucas went down, with Delvon Roe and Chris Allen already injured. Just look at the margin of victory in each of the Spartans NCAA victories (3, 2, 7, and 1). The Spartans combined winning margin of 13 points is the fewest of a Final Four team since the mid-90s. Perhaps that was to be expected from a team that was arguably an underdog in each of the first four games, and almost assuredly will be in the next two. But to underestimate a Tom Izzo Coached Michigan St. team at this time of year is to prepare to look foolish. They train all season for this. In fact, Izzo and his lineage of assistants have molded this program for the month of March since taking over some 15 years ago.

The Complacency has Passed

It’s not that this team was lazy or uninspired early in the year, but rather a victim of human nature. When you make a run all the way to the National Title game, you’re stuck moving forward with the burden of knowing the games that matter most are the ones played in the NCAAs. It’s just not that easy to create a sense of urgency early in a year when you have such a battle tested bunch. The 2001 Spartans overcame that quite impressively, but were hardly the norm. And as evident by the recent past, it’s very dangerous to think you can just “turn it back on” once you get to March. That’s not an excuse for the Spartans sluggish moments earlier this year, which always felt a bit over emphasized by Izzo’s occasional overly humble approach, but rather an explanation.

It’s not a concept exclusive to Michigan St. Basketball, just look around at other teams. It’s human nature to lose some of your edge, relax, and take a bit of a victory lap after an amazing run. It’s a really tough fight to win. How often have we seen teams, at both the College and Professional level, struggle mightily to follow up great runs from the year before? Consider teams coming off the prior year’s Super Bowl, this year’s Red Wings, and many an NBA team (who hardly need encouragement to take it easy in the first months of the season), amongst the initial examples. It happens almost all the time now.

If this team suffered through it a bit, they’ve more than made up for it now. They won the Big Ten, again, and made another Final Four, again. Like we discussed last week, what else could this team do? Unlike the 2006 team, who maybe didn’t handle the expectations and complacency quite as well, you know this team is laying it all on the line to get back to the National Title game, and as Izzo put it Tuesday, “get another crystal ball” for Michigan St. Basketball. So besides overcoming adversity, this team deserves credit for overcoming the natural complacency of prior success.

Branding a Program, and Building an Identity

The Spartan Nation knows their Basketball program. They know it was built on passion, toughness, defense, and rebounding. They know that loose balls, foul shooting, discipline, and Basketball IQ count for a lot around here. It’s who Tom Izzo is, and it’s who Michigan St. Basketball has become. The 2010 Spartans have exemplified “Spartan Basketball” through this Tournament run as much as any time in the Tom Izzo era. Earning back-to-back Final Fours trips, for the second time in Izzo's career, has elevated Spartan Basketball program to yet another level.

Over the weekend we saw the best of Spartan Basketball, and remarkably saw slight room for improvement. Maybe that’s a secret to this program’s success, because it always seems like they can get a little bit better. The 2010 team is still getting better, despite all the injuries, and we’re now at the end of March. How many other programs can say that? Not Kentucky, not UCLA, not UConn, and not Kansas.

This is anything but a unique concept. In fact, it’s almost become the norm around East Lansing to expect improvement at the end of the year. What a treat for the Spartan Nation. The 2009 team never actually hit their peak because they never had a totally healthy lineup (ex. Roe and Morgan) to work with. Yet, they got much better from the “1979 Reunion” Wisconsin game until they hit the Carolina Blue storm, early in the National Final.

One could argue that this run to the Final Four began in the locker room after that loss to UNC. The Spartans knew it would be a long road to get back Indy in 2010, but probably didn’t realize just how long it would actually be. Now back to the Final Four, there’s probably a sense of unfinished business in many of their minds. As we discussed last week, all you can do is make the most of the opportunities presented by any season. The 2010 team continues to make the most of them, and has survived all the way to play again for their ultimate goal. Credit the program for the thousands of hours they’ve put in to get back. It’s been a truly Spartan effort.

To many around the country, Spartan Basketball represents something authentic, and ideally American. People around America know Michigan St. Basketball now. They know the Spartans’ approach of hard work, discipline, and togetherness. They know the “War Drill.” And while you might argue that any team would become a “National Brand” simply by making it to 6 Final Fours in a 12 year span, it’s not guaranteed that you’d produce an identity. You don’t get that with wins alone, it takes something more.

Whether followed by a grocery bagger in Hilton Head, a turf grass engineer in Flagstaff, or an aspiring wing forward in suburban Chicago, Michigan St. Basketball has become a national brand, for all the right reasons. That, more than anything, is a reflection of the relentless dedication and efforts of Tom Izzo. His “big picture” approach has made this all possible. As a result, Izzo went from being “the new Basketball Coach” to the “face of the University” in about ten years. As much credit as he tries to deflect and share for that, he’s probably earned more than he’s ever let himself receive.

For the Spartan Nation, there’s an incredible amount of pride flowing right now. Flags being flown, logos are being flashed, and Final Four plans are coming together, all around the world. As we discussed once the calendar turned over to this very special month, for a lot of people…March is Michigan St. Basketball.

The Spot Up 3

Three quick thoughts to consider during your Final Four weekend:

  1. CBS does a decent job of covering the Big Dance, but there’s a massive deficiency when you can’t find all of the Regional Semi-Final games on television. It’s hard to believe that less than half of the Tournament’s rounds are nationally broadcast in a time that we’re used to seeing games on National TV allyearlong. The free internet coverage from CBS helps a ton, but it’s no replacement for on air TV. ESPN has the infrastructure (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU) to air all four games that are going at one time. That will be a major upgrade should the NCAA make the switch.
  2. I’m not sure any member of the 2010 Selection Committee should be allowed back in the future, especially Chairman Dan Guerrero (UCLA). It’s hard to imagine a worse effort.
  3. We have arrived at the peak of the American Sports calendar. It begins around the Super Bowl, builds through the Great American Race, flies through March Madness to the Final Four, then breezes through the dreams of Spring at Augusta, and the start of Major League Baseball. This is as good as it gets.