March 29, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The math, based on a composite photograph of Michigan State players wearing green caps and gowns, is fuzzy.
The number is probably higher than the 39 pictured in the MSU media guide when former walk-ons, who also earned their degrees while playing for Tom Izzo since 2000, are considered.
But let's stick with that figure as the official ballpark number of Spartans who graduated in roughly a four-year span during their time in East Lansing.
The members of that group are select for another reason: Each of them has played in at least one Final Four.
Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson played in three, which must be incomprehensible for the dozens of Division I schools that have yet to be represented by a single player in any Final Four, ever. And imagine what Michigan State's number would be if players who left early for whatever reason, think NBA stars Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph, were included in the count.
So it's within this context that seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne enter Sunday's East Regional championship game against Connecticut at Madison Square Garden -- they will keep the streak alive if they win and advance to North Texas.
After the Spartans nudged past No. 1 seed Virginia, 61-59, in Friday night's grind-it-out semifinal, sophomore guard Gary Harris framed the regional final almost as so-called program game, which is odd because MSU is well beyond the point of coveting signature wins to validate its standing among the nation's top programs.
As it turns out, even accomplished teams can still have program wins, and this would be one for the Spartans, who have returned to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010.
"We're playing for the seniors," Harris said. "We want to send them out the right way and we don't want to be a part of the group that ends Izzo's streak of four-year players in the Final Four."
Although Izzo continues to rank this team, as he has since the preseason, among the top three he's had with regard to Final Four potential, especially now that it's reasonably healthy for this time of year, he is tempering such talk.
At the same time, he doesn't disapprove of Appling and Payne bearing the weight of the 39 on their shoulders.
"I didn't bring it up as much in the last two months because we had so many other things to deal with," he said during Saturday's media session. "It's something we talked about early in the year, but even to this day I have not talked to those guys as much about it because I think they have enough other things (on their minds).
"But if they don't like pressure, they picked the wrong school to come to. Those streaks mean that the players before you lived up to the standards that the players before them had. And that's part of your obligation when you come here. They don't like it? Bad choice for them. And yet, I'm trying not to add to that burden by hammering it every day."
Michigan State seniors haven't been in this position since 2009 when Travis Walton and Goran Suton needed to beat top-seeded Louisville in the Midwest Regional to advance to the Final Four in Detroit, where they met, ironically, Connecticut. After beating the Huskies, also a No. 1 seed, the Spartans lost to another No. 1, North Carolina in the national championship game.
"When I had Travis Walton in 2009, every day he walked in and said, `I'm not going to be the class that didn't make it, I'm not going to be,' " Izzo said. "He put pressure on me. I felt like anvil on my back by the time I got done, but it worked out OK because it drove him.
"So this one, we have been a little bit more..., we have been like our society is. We got a little softer on this one. We kept it a little more mellow, and yet I'm starting to hear them talk about it and it's a good thing."
Pressure is good, stress is bad, as MSU football coach Mark Dantonio often says, and Appling wasn't pretending the streak isn't weighing on him. He just isn't exhibiting any undue anxiety.
"That's the extra chip that we have on our shoulder," he said. "None of us have ever advanced past the Sweet 16 so we're just kind of embracing the moment and taking it one game at a time and just trying to go out there each and every possession to execute our game plan and hopefully come out with the win.
"I feel like we can't overlook not one team in this tournament because that's the way upsets happen."
The personnel on both teams is much the same as it was when MSU lost to Connecticut, 66-62, in the 2012-13 season opener played in the Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
The value of that result as a gauge is suspect, however, because so much has changed since then. The Huskies aren't even in the same conference, having moved from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference, where they finished tied for third with SMU behind Cincinnati and Louisville, which were deadlocked in first place.
UConn's strength remains its lightning-bug guards, 6-foot-1 All-American Shabazz Napier and 6-0 Ryan Boatright, but Harris is a different player than he was on Nov. 9, 2012.
"That was my first college game, so I had a lot of nerves that game," he said. "I forgot the first play. I didn't really resolve it. (Boatright) got a steal and a basket so coach wasn't too happy about that.
"This is a different game. We were kind of a young team back then and there was a lot of uncertainty of who we were. Playing them late in the season now I think we're very comfortable with our identity and I'm sure they are as well. It's going to be a fun game, but the circumstances are definitely different."
The Spartans will again be changing gears in dramatic fashion, from the defensive slugfest with Virginia to what could be an up-tempo affair with an lot of open-court action against Connecticut.
"Especially with the type of backcourt they have, they love to push the ball, get out in transition and try to get easy baskets," Appling said. "I'm definitely looking forward to an up-and-down-type of game, so we'll just have to see how it plays out."
Michigan State is looking to improve to 20-3 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend, to 7-1 in the Elite Eight and 41-for-41 with four-year players reaching the Final Four under Izzo.