NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — When Tom Izzo walked into the media room at the Breslin Center, the place was already full of reporters who had been listening to football coach Mark Dantonio’s briefing about the start of spring practice.
“We’re back to a basketball school for the weekend,” Izzo joked.
It was, of course, a ridiculous statement — Izzo’s program is always the focus of the East Lansing campus at this time of year.
But this season, Michigan State has been able to take nothing for granted.
It seemed as if every missed free throw and late-game snafu pushed the Spartans one step closer to a disappointing finish in 2015, and after all of those trials and travails, it is indeed a bit of a surprise that they’re now preparing for a Sweet 16 matchup with Oklahoma later this week.
“We’ve matured,” junior Denzel Valentine said. “All the tough games we had throughout the year prepared us for this.”
Michigan State’s list of tight finishes is a long one. Seven of its games went to overtime, including losses to Notre Dame, Maryland, Minnesota, Wisconsin and even Texas Southern.
If the Spartans had won a couple more of those close games, they might have earned a much higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, but even as their regional’s No. 7 team, they were able to upset second-seeded Virginia on Sunday.
And in doing so, they looked strikingly similar to some of Izzo’s previous Michigan State teams, stymieing the Cavaliers with a superb defensive effort in a slow-paced slog of a game.
“Our defensive effort in the NCAA Tournament has been unbelievable,” Izzo said. “We are playing some of our best basketball.”
There have been times this season when the Spartans have looked almost like a finesse team. They’re shooting 39 percent from 3-point range. They turn the ball over only 11.4 times per game, a rate that will be the lowest of Izzo’s 20-year tenure if it holds up. Michigan State also averages 16.9 assists, the team’s best pace since the 2007-08 season.
But against Virginia, it was what happened at the other end of the court that stood out in many ways. Virginia shot only 30 percent from the field, and although the Cavs finished with 18 offensive rebounds, Michigan State held on for a 60-54 win.
“That’s what makes us so dangerous as a team, I think, is we can play any style,” Valentine said. “We can run, we can slow it down.”
Next up for Michigan State is third-seeded Oklahoma on Friday night in Syracuse, New York. That figures to be a much more up-tempo game, which may suit the Spartans just fine — but will nonetheless require an adjustment.
“I think we could have a test run for the 20-second shot clock in this game. It will be just the reverse opposite of what we just went through,” Izzo said. “We told our guys last week — you’re going to have to play defense probably for 34 seconds, maybe a little less, with (10th-seeded) Georgia. But we felt with Virginia, that’s what we had to do. Now I think we’re going to have to play defense for a lot less seconds, but our transition defense is going to be very, very critical.”
That’s a challenge Izzo and his team will happily look forward to. For a brief period this season, the Spartans were a bubble team, and even after solidifying their spot in the NCAA Tournament, it wasn’t clear how long this group would be able to stick around.
Now, the rest of Michigan State’s regional is on notice, and with top-seeded Villanova also eliminated along with Virginia, there’s a sense that the Spartans have a real opportunity ahead of them.
“We’re just going to keep pushing, grinding, see if we can make this little ride into a longer ride, into a bigger ride,” Izzo said. “We’ll look forward to try to, I don’t know what expectations to live up to, maybe the expectations of trying to find a way of getting this team to a Final Four.”
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