March 23, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
SPOKANE, Wash. - Maybe Michigan State didn't think of itself in such terms before it played Harvard Saturday night in the NCAA Tournament's Round of 32.
The Spartans were good, and at times very good, but great?
How could it make that claim? The season of the "I's" - injury and illness - saw the Spartans' unlimited preseason potential greatly marginalized by the inordinate number of games and practices missed. It became not a question of peaking at the right time, but one of can they get back on track before time ran out?
While cruising to a 14-point lead against the Crimson, as Branden Dawson matched his career-high of 20 points with more than a minute remaining in the first half, that potential appeared to be restored and Michigan State finally looked like the team coach Tom Izzo saw in his August daydreams.
Then something incredibly important happened.
Harvard, a No. 12 seed, whittled down what had become a 49-33 MSU advantage early in the second half with a 22-6 run, and then took its first and only lead, 62-60, with 7:12 remaining.
The Spartans were at a crossroads with their tournament life hanging in the balance. They had been rocked hard by a school known for turning out some of the world's best minds in business, law and science, not lottery picks.
Did Michigan State have the heart of a champion, or didn't it?
"We felt like so far in that game that we hadn't really challenged them," said Crimson guard Brandyn Curry. "It was kind of easy for them with all the shots and layups there were getting. So we wanted to really challenge them and they responded like great teams do.
"They didn't lose composure, they came down twice to hit a really clutch three. It would have been easy, at that moment where they have been winning the whole time and we make that big run, for a team to cave in. That's just the sign of a great team, and that's what they are."
Coming from a peer, that's high praise indeed although Izzo would debate anyone on just how great his team as it heads into its 12th Sweet 16 in 17 seasons and sixth in seven years. The No. 4 seed Spartans will play the winner of tonight's third-round game between No. 1 Virginia and No. 8 Memphis on Friday in the East Regional semifinal at Madison Square Garden in New York.
But Izzo now knows a little more about this team's character thanks to being pushed to the limit by his long-time friend and Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and the Crimson.
"It falls back from the Michigan (losses) at home and away and the Illinois (loss on March 1), when I think we got down as a team," said Dawson, who finished with a game-high 26 points. "We started blaming each other and started pointed fingers. So I think, honestly, this was definitely a big test for us because we stayed poised and we just kept fighting as a team."
Few deep incursions into the tournament come as effortlessly as the points did for MSU in the first half. Dawson scored 10 in a row during one stretch while posting the Spartans to a 36-22 lead.
Perhaps Michigan State's confidence would have swelled with a blowout win over Harvard. But maybe, as a result, when Virginia or Memphis pushes them to the hilt, they wouldn't know how to avoid caving in.
It was Gary Harris coming through with a clutch 3-pointer after the Crimson forged a 55-55 tie, to disrupt the run. Then, after Laurent Rivard gave Harvard the two-point lead with a 3-pointer from the right corner, it was Travis Trice who stopped it with a cold-blooded three that put the Spartans back in front to stay, 63-62.
Adreian Payne, who after setting a MSU tournament record with 41 points in Thursday's opener against Delaware, had to deal with determined defensive attention from Harvard and worked for his 12 points. His two free throws made it a three-point game, Harris added another three and so did Denzel Valentine, and disaster was averted.
Harris' 14 second-half points, out of 18 total, cemented his role as MSU's go-to guy against the Crimson and maybe going forward. "Get the ball to Gary," was Izzo's battle cry while coming out of one timeout.
Harris thrived with the responsibility of righting the ship.
"I didn't have any doubt at all," he said. "I could just tell by everybody's body language that we were sticking together. We weren't arguing. We knew that we were going to find a way to get it done. At this point in the season, we're not worried about blowing anybody out. It's survive and advance and that's what we did this weekend.
"We survived and we're advancing."
The notion that the NCAA Tournament - with players so driven to succeed they break down in tears when they don't regardless of seed - is ever easy struck Izzo as odd.
In 1998, his first trip to the Sweet 16 came after a dogfight with Princeton, like Harvard a member of the Ivy League, that also was decided by seven points. A year later, as a No. 1 seed, Izzo's first run to the Final Four included fierce battles with Mississippi, Oklahoma and Kentucky, which had raced out to a 17-4 lead. In 2000, the Spartans had to battle off the ropes in back-to-back regional games against Syracuse and Iowa State before winning the National Championship.
Michigan State survived scares from No. 12 Gonzaga and No. 11 Temple before reaching the national semis in 2001 and the run in '05 included the classic double-overtime victory against Kentucky. Southern Cal fought MSU tooth and nail en route to the Final Four in Detroit in '09, and four years ago, in Spokane, the Spartans needed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Korie Lucious to beat Maryland 85-83 in the second round and a one-point win against Tennessee in the regional final put them in Izzo's sixth Final Four. "With the parity there is now, if I could take four or five or six one-point wins and keep moving on, I would take those any day of the week," Izzo said. "There are too many good teams and as I said about Harvard, that's not a 12 seed. It just isn't.
"So I think it's going to be a good learning thing. I think we're going to be able to get a lot of coaching points in over the next two days as we start to work on our next opponent. When you can do it at this time of year, it will actually be kind of fun. Usually this time of year, you're just massaging everybody. We've still got a lot of work to do to kind of get us back to where we were three months ago."