The way Tom Izzo talks about "the past few years," you'd think his team had endured consecutive 20-loss seasons, probation or some other unbearably miserable fate.
"I apologized to [the players] in the last meeting I had with them," said Izzo. "I feel like I've let them down sometimes."
For the record, Izzo's Michigan State Spartans entered Friday night's Sweet Sixteen game against Duke having won more than two-thirds of their games the past four years, reached an Elite Eight and a Sweet Sixteen. So high was the bar set by predecessors like Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson, though, that the Spartans' current core of Alan Anderson, Maurice Ager, Paul Davis and the like were, until Friday night, widely considered underachievers. No Final Fours. No Big Ten titles. Oh, the horror.
Now, no matter what happens during the rest of the NCAA tournament, these Spartans will finally be able to say they accomplished something not Cleaves, Magic Johnson nor any other modern Michigan State hero can: They beat Duke. And they did it in stunning fashion, knocking off the Austin region's top seed 78-68 to claim the school's first win over the Blue Devils in five tries under Izzo and the first of any kind since 1958.
"Sooner or later, you have to stand up and get something done," said Izzo, whose program will play its fifth Elite Eight game in the past seven seasons Sunday against either Kentucky or Utah. "They're always hearing about what their predecessors did, but I told them [before the game], this is your chance to do something your predecessors haven't done."
They got it done, all right, and in classic Izzo fashion -- ugly. A middle-of-the-pack defensive team most of the season, the Spartans have turned it up considerably during their first three tournament games, culminating Friday when they helped cause 22 Duke turnovers (several of them, granted, were completely unforced), and held the Blue Devils' two premier outside shooters, J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing, to a combined 11-of-30 shooting night. It marked a complete reversal of the teams' Nov. 30 meeting in Durham, an 81-74 Duke victory in which the pair hit a combined 10-of-16 3-pointers and each scored 29 points.
For once, Izzo's penchant for using nearly his entire bench paid off, wearing down a Duke team that's skated by all season with the thinnest of rotations.
"We played the game just the way we wanted to play it," he said afterward. "We felt we had to keep the pressure on them. The guys just did a whale of a job [on Redick and Ewing]."
Unlike Izzo's glory teams, who made their mark by crashing the boards like a football team, this year's Spartans aren't a particularly stellar rebounding group, yet they managed to outmuscle the Blue Devils to the tune of a 40-22 advantage on points in the paint. After struggling to contain Duke big man Shelden Williams in the first half, MSU's less acclaimed center, Paul Davis asserted himself on both ends in the second half, finishing with 20 points, 12 rebounds and getting Williams into foul trouble. The nail in the coffin came with 2:41 left when Davis went up against Williams, made the basket, drew Williams' fifth foul and hit the free throw to turn a precarious three-point lead into a 69-63 advantage.
It was a game decided almost entirely by defense. Despite shooting just 36.1 percent in the first half and 41.5 for the game -- well below their 49.8 season average -- the Spartans gained the lead for good on a Shannon Brown 3-pointer early in the second half and stifled the Blue Devils any time they even hinted at a possible comeback.
"They really pressured the ball well," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Not only did they do a good job causing turnovers, but they caused us to not be able to see guys when they were open. J.J. had a few open looks in the first half, but we just couldn't see him."
Izzo has spoken on numerous occasions through the years of his admiration for Krzyzewski and his desire to one day turn Michigan State into the same level of program as Duke. Some would say he's already well on his way, having won a national title, reached three Final Fours and compiled the second-highest tourney winning percentage among active coaches (.786, trailing only Krzyzewski), but until Friday, beating the Blue Devils remained one of Izzo's last unconquered milestones.
This one, however, wasn't about redemption for the coach but redemption for a group of seniors -- Anderson, Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert and Tim Bograkos -- who earlier this season were labeled "losers" by a local columnist.
Despite the Spartans' glitzy record (25-6) and season-long national ranking, there's no question they'd taken a dive in terms of their national perception the past couple years, much of which can be traced to back to another meeting with Duke some 15 months ago. Coming off a surprise Elite Eight appearance the previous spring, Michigan State entered the 2003-04 season a consensus top 10 team and about to embark on a murderous (even by Izzo standards) non-conference schedule, beginning with an ACC/Big Ten Challenge date with the Blue Devils in East Lansing. Duke came to the Breslin Center and humiliated the Spartans, 72-50, the second in what would eventually become a 12-game losing streak to ranked opponents that didn't end until a home game against No. 20 Wisconsin last month. Similar losses to the likes of Oklahoma, Kentucky and Syracuse would soon follow, and while Izzo beat himself up for overscheduling, the Michigan State aura of just a couple years earlier took a hit with each defeat.
"It's been so hard," said Anderson, "playing all those tough teams and not coming up with any wins. And that Duke game didn't help any."
Combine all those high-profile losses with the fact they bowed out in their first Big Ten tournament game this year (to Iowa) and reached the Sweet Sixteen without beating anyone higher than a 12 seed, and the Spartans managed to fly into Austin as far under the radar as is humanly possible for a semi-recent national champion.
All that brutal scheduling was bound to pay off eventually, though, and privately, Izzo said he felt a potential tourney run coming. He'd noticed how Davis and Anderson (who had 17 points, eight rebounds and five steals Friday) had stepped up their game recently. And his players entered Friday's contest with the confidence gained from the earlier game in Durham, in which they trailed by just one point in the final minutes before poor free-throw shooting doomed them to defeat.
"I felt good after that game at Duke," said Anderson. "Even though we lost, the team was so together."
Suffice to say, though, few outside the program saw this run coming. Now that they're one step shy of the Final Four, though, the so-called "losers" are now just a win away from finally joining the same company as their vaunted predecessors. And don't they know it.
"We've heard the expectations from our people every single day," said Hill. "If we could add a Final Four to what we've already been able to do, that would just be unbelievable."