By: Jamie Samuelsen
If Michigan State wants to use the excuse that it ran into a better team Thursday night, that’s fine. If Tom Izzo points out, as he did, that his team played its worst game of the season at the most important time, we can agree. But in almost every account that I’ve read coming out of Phoenix, I keep seeing the phrase that the Spartans “ran out of gas”. No. I’m not accepting that.
Michigan State was beaten badly by Louisville. Was it a ‘bad’ loss? Only time will tell. The 2006 loss to George Mason looked bad at the time, and then looked better as GMU rolled through North Carolina and Connecticut on the way to the Final Four. Louisville certainly has a better pedigree than George Mason. They won the Big East Tournament two weeks ago. Rick Pitino coaches them. And they’ll be favored to beat Florida on Saturday and advance to the Final Four. So in the classic NCAA Tournament sense, this is not a bad loss.
But it’s a bad loss in terms of playing badly. Nobody can remember a time that Michigan State looked worse in an NCAA game, especially in a game where they were expected to play so well. We knew that the Cardinals would press, but the Spartans seemed ill prepared to handle it. I didn’t see this is a sign of fatigue – either physical or mental. I saw it as a lack of preparation, which is stunning from a Michigan State team.
Keith Appling figured to struggle a little bit given his lack of experience running the point and the ferocious defense that Louisville employs. And he did. But Draymond Green was a shocker. He may not be the most gifted athlete in the NCAA, but he’s certainly one of the smartest. And he just made silly play after silly play. After all the talk about his veteran leadership and his role as a ‘coach on the floor’, he looked like a freshman at times playing in his first big time game. You can’t indict Green. He saved the Spartans season Sunday against Saint Louis. And he’s done that dozens of times in his MSU career. It’s just a shame that his worst high profile game had to come in his final game. The whole of his career will not and should not be tarnished. It’s just a lousy way to end it.
So give full credit to Louisville for winning the game. Freshman Chane Behanan played like a senior scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Gorgui Dieng was a dominant force inside blocking shots. And his presence inside clearly intimidated both Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne who looked tentative. On one sequence, Nix tried every possible spin move to get an opening and just finally threw up a prayer. With his size, that should never happen, regardless of who’s defending him.
But let’s move away from the fatigue narrative. Michigan State had three days off between games. They arrived in Arizona on Monday night, almost a full 72 hours before tip-off. Louisville played four games in four days just to win the Big East tournament prior to their first two tournament games. And one other thing? These are kids in their late teens and early twenties. Their bodies and their minds can handle three basketball games in the span of seven days. MSU went back and forth across the country to play North Carolina and Duke at the start of the season. They played three games in a row in the Big Ten Tournament and played at a very high level. This is the NCAA Tournament where adrenalin alone should carry you through games. The other team played great. The Spartans played lousy. That’s the story of the game. Please don’t use the terms ‘fatigue’ or ‘out of gas’ after a loss. It reeks of excuse making.
Michigan State had a very, very good season. They won the Big Ten tournament and shared part of the regular season title. And this was a very good, very deep Big Ten. They have nothing to be ashamed of, especially what was expected of them in the preseason. But when you’re a one seed, and the two seed (Missouri) and the three seed (Marquette) gets cleared out of the way for you, then a loss in the Sweet Sixteen is a lost opportunity. It’s a lost chance for a seventh Final Four. And it’s a lost chance for Izzo to grab that second National Championship. This one will sting for quite awhile. It won’t erase a terrific year. But it also won’t put another banner in the Breslin Center, which is the standard that Izzo has set.