Keith Appling and Tom Izzo have been through a lot this season for Michigan State. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Everyone saw this coming, right? Yeah, right. Tom Izzo thought he saw it coming, but even he wasn’t sure. Now that the Spartans are revived, the reaction is both stunning and not surprising, and I don’t care if that’s impossible.
This is one of the charms of the NCAA Tournament, where what you’ve done is less important than what you’re capable of doing. Michigan showed it last season, losing the Big Ten title on the final day, then nearly winning the national championship.
Two weeks ago, Michigan State looked awful in a 53-46 home loss to Illinois. Physical aches were yielding mental mistakes and dire narratives were being crafted.
Today, the Spartans wield a gigantic pair of pundit-awarded scissors, capable of cutting down all nets. I dare say, there’s never been a No. 4 seed considered such an overwhelming Final Four favorite. It seems like a slap at the higher seeds in the East Regional —Virginia, Villanova, Iowa State — but it’s really a salute to Izzo, who knew the enormous potential his team possessed. So did everyone else, when the Spartans were ranked No. 1 early.
Right or wrong, Michigan and Michigan State essentially switched positions on the national-perception scale after the Spartans’ 69-55 rout in the Big Ten tournament title game. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, because both have made dramatic adjustments this season. The Wolverines started 6-4, rolled to the regular-season title and are a solid No. 2 seed, and I still don’t think Michigan and Michigan State sharing the Final Four stage is farfetched.
It’s amazing how quickly storylines can flip in college basketball. With its impressive three-game rebound, the Spartans turned back into a hot fashionable pick. All four ESPN experts — Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps, Dick Vitale, Jay Williams — predicted Sunday they’d win the national championship, shocking unanimity. Las Vegas gives Michigan State the second-best odds to win it all, behind only No. 1 Florida.
“All of a sudden we went from the ugly duckling to the prom queen,” said Izzo, the master of melded analogies, in addition to a master of March. He’s ecstatic the Spartans are whole again, fiercely defending the hole again, with Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson capable of dominating inside.
But Izzo has been around the bracket a few times, and he’s not ready to announce all is perfect after one stirring weekend. Before Payne was fully back and Dawson was officially back and Keith Appling shook off his sore wrist, the Spartans had lost seven of 12.
“To the fans, you put the jerseys back on and you’re 100 percent,” Izzo said. “We’re still not where we need to be if we’re going to make a deep run. We still have moments where we’re fouling too much or doing this or that.”
When Izzo obsesses about something, it’s usually for a reason. He obsessed about the injuries and he wasn’t sand-bagging, even as some fans wrote the team off. Now MSU is pushing the ball on offense and playing manic defense, and without any daunting obstacles in the East, it’s become a de-facto Tournament favorite.
The Wolverines might be further down the oddsmakers’ lists, but they have clutch shooters who have won a lot of tight games. With their offense, they’re just a few blistering nights from flipping perceptions again. While Michigan State’s recovery is happening right now, Michigan’s happened earlier, when it lost sophomore center Mitch McGary to back surgery.
The Wolverines had more time to adjust, but John Beilein still pulled off a remarkable transition. His top three players from last season — Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., McGary —are either gone or sidelined. He crafted a new top three — Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III — who stepped into larger roles.
McGary’s absence didn’t prevent Michigan from winning the Big Ten by three games, but now it could be telling, when interior baskets become more vital. McGary averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in last year’s Tournament, and while he has hinted he could be ready if the Wolverines reach the Final Four, it’s unreasonable to expect it.
As unpredictable as the Tournament is, this year’s edition is beyond madness. In three strong games, the Spartans shook off six weeks of concern and became a prom queen again. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have lost once since Feb. 16, and they’re asked if their confidence is shaken.
“Not at all, I think we’re one of the most confident teams out there,” Stauskas said. “Just because we lose a game or don’t shoot well, doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop doing what we do. … We’ve shown times where we can really defend, and then other times where we completely break down. If we can be consistent defensively, I think we’ll be all right because offensively, we take care of ourselves most of the time.”
Identities have reformed and expectations have been restated — as high as ever for Michigan State, as lofty as last year for Michigan. Employing different styles and traveling different paths, both have accomplished plenty, and every conceivable goal is still just a short run away.
2 Michigan vs. 15 Wofford
Tip-off: 7:10 p.m. Thursday, Bradley Center, Milwaukee
Records: Michigan 25-8, Wofford 20-12
At stake: Third-round game against Texas or Arizona State