By: Will Burchfield
If Michigan State’s bar for success this season was a national championship, the team’s second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament qualifies as a failure.
What would Tom Izzo say to fans who claim the supremely-talented Spartans didn’t reach their potential?
Izzo paused, then pointed to his team’s record.
“30-5,” he said, before pausing again, this time for longer. He seemed to recognize the validity of the sentiment, but refused to turn his back on his players.
“You know what I would say? Find another team. I liked the potential of this team, I like what they did. They got beat today. It’s not the NBA, there’s no best-out-of-seven series. You have a bad day and you don’t win. There’s a lot of teams that have gone through that, and we went through it,” Izzo said.
The Spartans embraced championship-or-bust expectations throughout the season, and Izzo did little to dial down the hype. Asked if that became a burden for an especially young team, Izzo said, “I don’t think so, I really don’t.”
“That’s why you come here. The days of winning a game in the tournament, that ended 20 years ago. … For the most part, (the players) put it on themselves. It’s their team. But I rubber-stamped it, and I have no regrets about rubber-stamping it. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it will be as long as I’m here,” he said.
Sophomore center Nick Ward was quick to respond when asked if the team’s loss on Sunday turns the season into a disappointment.
“No, no. We had a whole lot of accomplishments for the season,” Ward said. “We just lost this game.”
After averaging over 80 points per game on the year, Michigan State went impossibly cold versus Syracuse and its troublesome zone defense. The Spartans made just 17 of 66 shots, their 53 points marking a season low.
For Michigan State, it was a crushing conclusion to a trying campaign. The team was mired in controversy over the past couple months months, the players answering for sins they didn’t commit, but managed to win a program-record 28 regular season games en route to the Big 10 championship.
“Not a lot of teams have been through everything we’ve been through, so I would say that I have never, ever been prouder of a team than I am of this team,” Izzo said. “No coach-speak. My-speak, Izzo-speak, Yooper-speak. I should say it in Yooper way, but that would probably bother all your networks, so I won’t say it the way I want to say it. I’ll just say proud.
“Wouldn’t trade them for anything, appreciate what they did for me and have to find a way to do a better job in winning these games when they really matter.”
Izzo was especially fond of this group of players, from their humility to their selflessness to their grace amid challenging times. They represented the program and the university with class. It’s for this reason that Sunday’s loss was one of the most painful of the coach’s career.
“This will go in the top two or three, but it’s a variety of reasons. I said when Miles (Bridges) came back, ‘I’m going to promise you we’re going to work hard for what you gave up,’ and I think all the kids rallied around that. That was one reason it was a little harder, and then to go through some things, that’s another reason it’s a little harder, and then to have maybe the best group of guys you’ve ever had,” Izzo said.