March 17, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - History is bound to repeat itself for a team making its 16th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and the featured item on Michigan State's menu is déjà vu du jour.
The current Spartans may not have had that it-feels-like-we've-been-here-before moment when they were announced as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional Sunday, but coach Tom Izzo sure was retracing familiar steps.
Michigan State's second-round opponent on Thursday at The Palace of Auburn Hills is No. 14 seed Valparaiso, just as it was when the Spartans began their journey to the 2000 national championship in Cleveland.
Coincidentally, MSU's next stop 13 years ago, after defeating Valpo and Utah, just happened to be The Palace, where the Spartans emerged as Midwest Regional champions. From there, Michigan Stage moved on to the Final Four in Indianapolis, the site of its greatest success under Izzo and the source of unrivaled inspiration.
If MSU escapes this first weekend in Michigan unscathed, it will return to Indy.
However, since "parity" and "wide-open tournament" are the buzzwords of this tournament, and the year of the mid-major was declared when Gonzaga surfaced as a No. 1 seed, Izzo also has plenty of harrowing flashbacks to use as cautionary tales with his players.
Memphis, a high mid-major, could be awaiting Michigan State in the second round. The Tigers ran the Spartans out of the 2008 tournament in the regional semifinals. Then, there was George Mason, which bounced MSU with a first-round upset in '06. Four years later, the Spartans bowed out of the Final Four, in Indianapolis, with a loss to Butler.
"You know, it is hard to look ahead to any of that and in coach-speak you never do that," Izzo said. "But in human-being speak, you do do that. You just look at the whole thing and you say, `OK, here's who you've got to play to get there, and here's what you've got to do.'
"I love being at The Palace. I think that's great. I love Indy, and if we get past the first weekend I think that would be great. And I think the players were happy for their families with where we go. Yeah, we've got to take care of business one game at a time..., and early on we've got to play games that we have to find a way to win, and if we get out of the first weekend we've really got two 1-seeds."
Two opening wins would put likely match MSU against No. 2 Duke, which was touted as a potential top seed before losing in the ACC Tournament, in the regional semis. Michigan State won its most recent NCAA Tournament game against the Blue Devils in the regional semis en route to an appearance in the 2005 Final Four.
Then, what to make of a potential Elite Eight game against No. 1 seed Louisville in Indy? The Cardinals beat Michigan State in last year's West Regional semifinal in Phoenix, but MSU toppled No.1 Louisville in the '09 Regional in Indianapolis en route to the Final Four in Detroit, of which Auburn Hills is a suburb.
If this convoluted trip down memory lane, with all of its unexpected twists and turns, drives home the point that anything can and will happen, and the Spartans heighten their competitive instincts as a result, then it can be instructive.
Izzo pointed out that mid-majors are no longer content to just get an invitation to the tournament.
"I don't think there any `gimmes,' " he said. "I just haven't figured out if the top has come down or the bottom has come up. It doesn't even matter if there's been any change in the up and the down.
"What matters is that when the lower-level teams, or the mid-majors, or the non-BCS teams, like a Butler, like a VCU, like George Mason have success, even if those teams aren't any better, it gives them confidence. They're something to point to. I'm sure everybody shows video of VCU in the (2012) Final Four, of Butler in the Final Four and George Mason in the Final Four.
"I think that's why it's a bigger problem right now."
The Spartans aren't exactly riding a wave of momentum into the national tourney. Saturday's Big Ten Tournament semifinal game was marred by mental lapses and mistakes that were the difference in the three-point loss to Ohio State.
Michigan State may not even get to Duke or Louisville if it continues to be its own worst enemy.
"I think we have a great amount of respect for a team like Valpo because in this tournament, it's win or go home," said junior point guard Keith Appling. "If you take any team for granted, on any given night you can be upset and be headed back home.
"That's one of the things we don't want to happen, so we've got to watch the film and try to focus in for 40 minutes."
Although the Spartans have played 33 games and two exhibitions, they're still trying to master basic concepts.
"Communication on both ends of the floor," Appling said. "I feel like if we pick up our communication a little bit, that will prevent a lot of bad things from happening. You can harp on it as much as you want, but it's something that just has to be done.
"I think everybody in our locker room is making a conscious effort to try to work on it. It's not like anybody is not communicating on purpose. If we improve in that area, we should make a great run in this tournament."
It's not like the Spartans haven't had that feeling before over the years.