March 23, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
PHOENIX - The season began with a tearful farewell. It ended exactly the same way.
Between the time Delvon Roe announced he was unable to continue playing basketball for Michigan State because of health issues, to when Draymond Green slowly walked off the court for the last time in a green and white uniform following Thursday night's 57-44 West Regional semifinal loss to Louisville, the Spartans took their fans, coach Tom Izzo and his assistants and themselves on a pedal-to-the-metal thrill ride.
They couldn't have known their tank held only enough to get them through turn No. 3. And so, MSU left US Airways Center knowing there's no shame in knowing you ran the best race you were capable of running.
"It's not a good feeling," said Green. "You always want to go out on top, but we just weren't able to. I still think we could have done a little more, but these guys gave us their all, and at the end I think we just ran out of gas.
"You couldn't ask for a better year. You could ask for a better ending, but the overall makeup of the year - some things we did, the fun we had together - you couldn't ask for more."
Michigan State came into season uncharacteristically unranked. The Spartans were all but dismissed as a non-factor on the national scene after opening with back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Duke.
Then, after running off 15 straight wins, MSU demanded a reassessment. The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten championship, captured the Big Ten Tournament crown, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and were ranked as high as No. 4 in the national polls.
"We just had a great will to win," Green said. "We didn't finish the way we wanted to, but we had a strong bond and we were a very fun group to watch. Looking at us, you could just tell we enjoyed each other, you could tell we enjoyed being around each other, and we enjoyed playing together and we won games.
"We got everything out of us we could and we accomplished some great things. We were the type of team that had to go out and play our best every single game if we was going to win, but you can only do that for so long."
The red flags started going up soon after Michigan State's departure after Sunday's victory over St. Louis in Columbus was delayed by weather and the team returned home in the middle of the night. After going to class and being put through a quick practice on Monday, the team jumped on a charter for an earlier-than-usual departure to the regional site.
After arriving in Arizona, there was a lethargy Izzo hadn't sensed with his team all season long, and it became even more pronounced in Wednesday's practice and Thursday morning's walk-through.
Still, it was something Michigan State might have been able to overcome if a number of other unforeseen roadblocks hadn't popped up as the game unfolded.
Louisville, the 253rd best 3-point shooting team in the nation at 31.3-percent efficiency, started bombing in triples. Seven of the Cardinals' eight first-half baskets were from behind the arc and the other was a dunk from inside the rim.
The Spartans went into the game thinking they'd be happy if Jared Swopshire, a 15-percent (3 of 20) 3-point shooter coming into the game, wanted to try to hurt them from the outside. Then he did the unexpected, going 2-for-2.
Michigan State had an inkling it wasn't going to be its day when Gorgui Dieng, who missed the first 3-point try of his career in the third-round win over New Mexico a week earlier, made his second against MSU.
Although the Spartans also got outrebounded and had only two offensive boards, while missing an overabundance of shots they usually make (6 for 22), they only trailed 23-18 at halftime.
Nevertheless, bizarre things continued to happen to Michigan State in the second half.
While trying to complete a long inbound pass to the backcourt after a time-out, senior Austin Thornton threw the ball over the scorer's table out of bounds, and Louisville eventually grew a 10-point lead with 13:05 remaining in the game.
But, MSU had one more run in it.
And then Green provided one of those moments only Hollywood scriptwriters think about. His tip-dunk of Wood's missed 3-point attempt accounted for MSU's sixth unanswered points and cut the Cardinal lead to four with 10:59 to go.
In the process, Green got the 12th rebound he needed to tie Greg Kelser for the top spot on Michigan State's all-time rebound list. The boisterous Spartans fans did their best to lift MSU out of the doldrums with a blast of sound that filled the NBA arena.
It was the pivot point on which the game would turn in Michigan State's or Louisville's favor.
Unfortunately for MSU, things took a turn for the worst. Cardinal power forward Chane Behanan answered with a layup. Dieng's block of a shot by Payne led to a Louisville 3-pointer and Chris Smith stole the ball from Spartan point guard Keith Appling, and Kyle Kuric scored on a layup to give Louisville and even bigger lead, 42-31.
"You just looked at our faces, and even when we cut it to four we did not have that energy," Izzo said. "Trust me, that had to be just because we were worn out. It's a shame to say that, but it's the truth."
All was lost when even the desperate strategy of fouling at the end even got fouled up. Trailing only by seven with 2:40 left, MSU got what it wanted when Behanan missed the front end of a one-and-one. But the rebound went right to Louisville's Russ Smith who tipped the ball in for a basket.
Louisville got 16 points off Michigan State's 15 turnovers and outrebounded the Spartans, 39-36. MSU held Louisville to a respectable 38.2-percent shooting, but made only 14 of 49 (28.6 percent).
"I don't want you to think this doesn't bother me, because the way we played does bother me," Izzo said. "I've gotta look at the film, which I never do (after a loss in the tournament), because I never saw us play that bad.
"It was a hard year because we weren't as talented, but it was an easy year because it was so much fun to coach, and I had a leader (in Green) who was phenomenal, and Austin played through pain and headaches and was phenomenal."
Bittersweet at the beginning and bittersweet at the end, MSU's season was a sweet ride nonetheless.
"It's tough to enjoy now," Green said. "But at some point, we'll be able to look back at it and enjoy it."