INDIANAPOLIS - Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis stood at center court Sunday afternoon, his slightly red eyes soaking up the joy swirling around him.
"It's the first time," Hollis said, "I've ever cried at a basketball game."
Tears fell all around Sunday. Before he snipped the piece of net he wore under his Final Four hat, Spartans guard Travis Walton had cried, too. So had the man most responsible for all those hugs, smiles and wet eyes. As the clock wound down on Michigan State's 64-52 Midwest Region Final beatdown of Louisville (RECAP | BOX), Michigan State coach Tom Izzo turned and peered into the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium. The tears dropped when he saw his parents, his wife, his children. Next to them sat Magic Johnson, the Spartan who 30 years ago helped put the Final Four on the map when his Michigan State team collided with Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores. Later, someone would ask Izzo about the inspiring storyline. "Which storyline?" he asked.
In no particular order, here are those storylines:
• When Michigan State faces Connecticut in Saturday's national semifinal at Detroit's Ford Field, the Spartans will become the first team to play in the Final Four in its home state since Duke in 1994. In the process, Michigan State may provide a glimmer of hope for a state crushed by the falling economy.
• The win fulfilled recruiting dreams spun by Izzo for guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers. Izzo all but promised Lucas, from Sterling Heights, Mich., and Summers, from Detroit, that they would play in the Final Four in front of their hometown fans. "That was embarrassing," Izzo cracked, "when I was on two knees doing that."
• By winning Sunday, the Spartans clinched a trip to the Final Four for Walton. Had they lost, he would have been the first player since Izzo took over the program in 1995 to spend his entire career in East Lansing and miss the Final Four.
• That makes five Final Fours for Izzo, who should finally get credit for being one of the best three or four coaches in the country. That credit probably will come in the form of interest from Kentucky, college basketball's winningest program. "He is coaching his butt off," Johnson said. "Kentucky, stay away."
It all comes back to Izzo, the proud Iron Mountain, Mich., native groomed for the job by legend Jud Heathcote. Among the "million things" racing through his mind Sunday was the hope that his team will inspire his state. "I'm just hoping we're a silver lining," Izzo said. Johnson, the Lansing native who outdueled Bird for the school's first national title, believes the Spartans already have inspired. "The state of Michigan needs a victory like this," Johnson said. "Everything we've been going through - losing jobs, the economy, the mortgage crisis -- has affected Michigan probably worse than any other state. This is a good, good feeling for the whole state of Michigan."
Izzo didn't want to give it away, but he knew more than four hours before tipoff that the Spartans would celebrate Sunday. After a morning run through icy rain, Izzo met his players in Monument Hall, a ballroom on the ground floor of the downtown Hilton. Watching video Saturday night of Louisville against Villanova, Izzo had noticed a better way to crack the Cardinals' press. He installed that wrinkle, and the players spent the rest of their walkthrough proving they had digested the game plan. Izzo hated his team's attitude during these walkthroughs in recent weeks. Sunday, the Spartans were crisp as a starched shirt. "I left that room saying we were going to win the game," Izzo said. "I really believed that."
In turn, Izzo would keep his promise to Walton. "One thing Coach does is stick to his promises," Walton said. "He said, 'You get me through Friday, I'll do my best to get you through Sunday.'" Walton had whipped his teammates through a Sweet 16 win Friday against Kansas. Now Izzo and the rest of the Spartans had to make sure Walton wasn't the player who snapped the streak.
The Cardinals didn't make it easy. Neither team had more than a three-point lead until Summers dunked with 12:50 remaining to give the Spartans a five-point edge. The dunk came in the midst of a Michigan State streak of 11 consecutive scoring possessions that began when Walton hit a jumper to put the Spartans up, 37-34, and ended when Draymond scored on a putback to give them a 55-43 lead. By that point, Louisville had tapped out. "They were quicker than us," said Louisville forward Terrence Williams, who scored five points on 1-of-7 shooting. "Their defense was more physical, and we really couldn't turn them over like we wanted to."
Michigan State center Goran Suton scored 17 of his game-high 19 in the first 18 minutes. Summers scored 10 of his 12 in the second half. Meanwhile, Izzo sent wave after wave of Spartans to wear down the Cardinals with man-to-man defense. Ten Michigan State players logged more than five minutes Sunday.
In other words, they played IzzoBall, which, while decidedly unsexy, gets results. The upshot of Sunday's bludgeoning? Walton cut his net, and Izzo kept his streak alive. Legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler once said that those who stayed would be champions. Izzo can tell recruits that those who come to Michigan State will play in the Final Four.
"Now he can say that to every person." Walton said, "(He can) look them in the eyes and not have to say, 'There was one player I did not get (there).' He can say, 'I got every player to a Final Four that gave his all. If you come and work hard for me, do what you're supposed to do, we're going to get you to a Final Four.'" Walton, who didn't always understand why Izzo made practices so tough, offered his gratitude Sunday. "He probably wants more for me than I want for myself," Walton said. "I love him. I'm pretty sure he loves me the same."
Hollis, who roomed with Izzo in the mid-'80s when the future A.D. was a Michigan State student manager and the future coach was a graduate assistant, believes that after a national title (2000) and five Final Fours in 14 years at the helm, Izzo may have climbed into some rare air.
"You ask yourself, when does he become a legend? When does our program become elite?" Hollis said. "If you look at the number of Elite Eights, you look at the number of Final Fours, this program is on the brink if not already in the same breath as the Kentuckys and Dukes. We're approaching it. I don't think we're quite there yet, but we're right on the brink."
Funny that Hollis should mention Kentucky, because there is a job opening in Lexington. Sunday, Hollis delivered a clear message. Bring on the offer. "Nobody's going to touch him," Hollis said. "He's a Spartan. He'll always be a Spartan. We'll make sure of that."
As Izzo keeps taking tough, defense-minded teams to Final Fours, Hollis expects schools to keep offering Izzo jobs. "I like that," Hollis said. "The more Tom Izzo is talked about for every job in America, I think it's a positive. It means he's doing a great job and he's desired. People want him. That's the one side of it. The other side is we make sure he's embraced on our campus in every possible way."
And then the A.D., who had just watched his old friend coach a game that left him crying tears of joy, revealed his ace in the hole.
"Being his old roommate, I've got a few pictures of him," Hollis said. "I guarantee he's not going anywhere."