March 23, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
PHOENIX - A season doesn't have to finish with a championship, or even a Final Four, to be unforgettable.
Sometimes, it's more about the journey than the final destination, as Michigan State players and coaches were resigned to accept after being eliminated from the NCAA Tournament with a 57-44 loss to Louisville Thursday night.
The Spartans didn't finish the season with the ultimate accomplishment, but they were accomplished as players, and a team. Their record of 29-8 includes Big Ten regular season and tournament titles.
Draymond Green leaves as a first-team All-American and conference Player of the Year. His game-high 16 rebounds against the Cardinals were more than enough to boost him past Greg Kelser on MSU's all-time rebound list, 1,096-1,092. More national honors may be forthcoming.
Brandon Wood, the senior transfer from Valparaiso, scored a team-high 14 points in his last of just 37 games as a Spartan. He thought he was a good player when he arrived in East Lansing, and will depart knowing how much better he could be after being challenged and stretched by coach Tom Izzo and his staff, and his teammates.
Austin Thornton came the furthest of any player on the team. He started his career five years earlier as an obscure walk-on from Sand Lake, whom no one would have blamed for moving on without basketball at some point, or even noticed. He leaves as a bona fide Division I starter and Green's co-captain.
"This was a truly special year for us," Thornton said. "As a group, I hope we're remembered as a bunch of winners. Draymond and myself, guys who've been here for the long haul, we both kind of came in with our respective recruiting classes, and there weren't a lot of expectations for either one of us.
"Give Draymond Green a lot of credit. He turned himself into truly a special player, and considering the way I started to now, it's been special. It's been fun to play with Draymond. He's been a great teammate and a great leader and I'm sure someone I'll be friends with for the rest of my life."
Wood went from being a star at Valpo to a role player on one of the nation's top programs.
"I'm not disappointed at all and feel good that we had a great year, but it is unfortunate we had to lose this early," he said. "Coach has told us this is probably the best group of players he's ever had. Just the camaraderie of the team, and the chemistry and the leadership has been the best he's ever had.
"We worked hard every day and that's why we had a successful year. We came into the season not even projected to finish in the top half of the conference, and we won the conference, won the conference tournament and made it to the Sweet 16.
"We were one of the last 16 teams standing. Aside from winning a national championship, (Izzo) couldn't have asked for a better team than us."
Green was the second once-in-a-coaching-career player Izzo has had, second only to Mateen Cleaves who led the Spartans to the 2000 national title. Green was to rebounds what Cleaves was to assists, but he didn't take much solace in breaking the MSU rebound record.
"It doesn't really matter," Green said. "It's a great thing to do, but at the end of the day, I'd prefer the win."
"They've done a great job with me over four years," Green said. "I can only be thankful for the work they've done with me making me into a better player and an even better person.
"It's more about what we did as a team than what I did as an individual because without these guys, the legacy everyone is talking about wouldn't be there. They gave us more than we could have ever imagined getting and did some things that haven't been done here in a long time."
Although Cleaves won a national championship, Green did more with less.
"My son (Steven Mateen) is named after Mateen and we all know why," Izzo said of the cornerstone of his program. "But I couldn't be prouder of a team because (Cleaves) had more people around him. Draymond didn't have the veterans or the talent around him, and still found a way to get us some incredible things this year.
"The footprints I always talk about - this will be a pretty good print I'll be able to use for teams in the future."