Spartans' will: Go from very good to truly great
East Lansing — There was a recurring theme coming out of the Breslin Center on Saturday afternoon, and very little of it was nostalgic.
There was plenty of that, to be sure, with Michigan State’s four seniors playing their final home game, led by 27 points and 13 assists from Denzel Valentine.
It was a celebration as much as a game. The Spartans had just won their sixth straight, locked up the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament, and when the crowd stuck around — not a seat was empty —to honor the seniors, standing and watching was the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Josh Jackson.
It was, as coach Tom Izzo said afterward, a good time to be a Spartan.
But the true message after Saturday’s celebration, punctuated with a 91-76 victory over Ohio State, was that the end of the regular season was simply one step — one step in a journey this team sees ending by cutting down the nets in Houston in about four weeks.
That would mean Michigan State is the national champion, and that has been the goal all season.
“It was emotional, don’t get me wrong,” Valentine said of Saturday’s atmosphere. “But at the same time the realization kicked in that we’ve got nine more games left and we’ve got a chance to do something special. That’s why I wasn’t that emotional.”
For those doing the math, nine games would mean three in the Big Ten tournament and six more to reach the national title game. And just to be clear, Valentine had no problem guaranteeing the fact his team would win a national championship.
He said so in the locker room when asked about a similar guarantee from Mateen Cleaves 16 years ago and he wasn’t backing down from it.
“We have the team to do it,” Valentine said. “The only thing that is gonna stop us is us.”
The Spartans have shown no indication they intend to stop themselves. They closed the regular season winning 10 of 11, the only loss coming by one point in overtime at Purdue. But that feels like so long ago, the confidence is soaring in the Michigan State locker room.
That can happen when you’re busy rolling over the competition.
Only one of those 10 victories came by less than double-digits — a 74-65 win over Maryland the exception. The other nine were by 31, 34, 16, 19, 12, 19, 31, 31 and 15. In fact, of Michigan State’s 13 Big Ten wins, only one other came by single digits, a 69-61 win at Minnesota without Valentine.
That domination has the second-seeded Spartans headed to the Big Ten tournament convinced a championship there will be the next step. A win in Indianapolis would be the third conference tournament title in five years for the Spartans and would include a trip to the championship game for the third straight season.
If Michigan State pulls that off, however, expect a fairly tempered celebration. Because, as they made clear on Saturday, winning on the final Monday of the season in Houston is what matters.
Izzo didn’t make the same guarantee his star player did, but he made it clear where he believes this team is headed.
“In the 21 years I’ve been a head coach we’ve been to seven Final Fours,” Izzo told the crowd. “Three of those I thought had a legitimate chance to win going in (to the NCAA Tournament). I’m putting my neck on the line. This is the fourth.”
Valentine backed that up with a guarantee. His teammates, while hesitating to make the same proclamation, were no less confident, especially knowing their coach feels the same way.
“It’s something that we expect of ourselves,” senior Matt Costello said. “That is one nice thing of having senior-led teams and that expectation in ourselves. When people say stuff like that, we already have that expectation on us. So, OK, now you’re on board with us. It’s not anything shocking.
“We will appreciate it and now it’s time to get work done. I’m very happy to have him at the helm and directing this thing.”
Added fellow senior Bryn Forbes, “I think we are going to be national champions. That’s my take. That’s our goal and I don’t want to accept anything else. I’ll just put it out there.”
It would be the lasting legacy these seniors have talked about since the season began. Really, it’s what they’ve talked about since getting run off the floor by Duke in last year’s Final Four, and to an extent, they’ve been thinking about it since they were sophomores and lost in the regional final to Connecticut.
“I know if we won that game we would have won the national championship,” Valentine said of the loss to UConn.
But Costello believes last year’s showing has a bigger influence now.
“This year’s drive is what we did last year,” Costello said. “We got to the Final Four and were happy with that and got crushed. We want to win it all this year.”
In the glow of Saturday’s celebration, that was what came through as strongly as anything.
It was a good day to be a Spartan, but better days could still lie ahead.