Michigan State hopes March blows in like a Spartan

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Spend even a few seconds around Michigan State basketball and there is no doubt what time of year matters most.

There are reminders everywhere, from a sparkling trophy case in the lobby of the Berkowitz Center to the Final Four banners covering one wall in the practice gym to every banner hanging above the court at Breslin Center.

It’s March, and that means everything if you’re a Spartan.

“This is where legends are made,” freshman Miles Bridges said. “This is where Coach Izz was made. I mean, how many Final Fours? Seven. So that’s where he became a legend so this is a great month for Michigan State.”

The list of what the program has accomplished in March under Tom Izzo is long, and the seven Final Fours and one national championship are at the top. But the Spartans’ work in the Big Ten tournament has been equally impressive with five championships, the most of any team in the conference.

It’s been just as impressive recently as Michigan State has played in three straight tournament title games and enters this week’s event at the Verizon Center in Washington as the defending champion following last season’s title-game victory over Purdue.

And while Michigan State enters this tournament nowhere near the favorite as the 5 seed, it’s the time of year that Izzo believes this group will respond to, as so many of his teams have in the past.

“This is my favorite time of the year, it’s one-and-done time,” Izzo said. “Some people embrace it and some people fear it. I think that is the difference between who wins it and who loses it. This team has faced a lot of issues this season and is able to embrace that as well as any team that I have had. Even when I addressed the (19-year NCAA Tournament streak), that was a scary time for me because I went out on a limb, but I thought our players embraced that. So I see no reason why we won’t embrace this week.”

There are no guarantees, however. There are reasons Michigan State is seeded fifth and is still on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the biggest being its youth. It’s led to swings of inconsistency all season that have the Spartans looking like a championship team one night and an NIT team the next. From rashes of turnovers to missed free throws to botched defense — they’ve all played a role.

It’s why Izzo emphasized this week he doesn’t just “snap my fingers” and everything comes together. To get his team to understand the mentality of March, when one loss means you go home instead of wait for the next game, Izzo relies on the help of former players as much as his own experience.

Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes were back during the NBA All-Star break and Draymond Green calls all the time. Bridges said he’s already talked with Gary Harris this week and Mateen Cleaves is a frequent visitor. Steve Smith even flew in to meet with the team at Maryland last week. And, of course, Izzo is expecting a call from Magic Johnson.

It all helps, but it’s par for the course for these players.

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“You hear from them all year,” freshman Cassius Winston said. “But the message this time of year is usually the same. This is Spartan basketball and this is what we do. I think we’re battle tested and we’re ready for March.”

It’s a message that’s especially critical for this Michigan State team, one that relies so heavily on freshmen. Only two players — senior Alvin Ellis and junior Lourawls Nairn — are left from the 2015 Final Four team and understand what a deep March run takes.

“When you’re a freshman and you get beat, you always think that there’s another chance to get to a Final Four,” Izzo said. “And then all the sudden there’s an injury, and the next year, something else happens. There are no next years. What you’ve got to do is everything in your power to take care of your business in the present.”

That will be the task for these freshmen — to understand what’s at stake. It could be the first shot for Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford and might be the only shot for Bridges, a potential one-and-done to the NBA. For what it’s worth, Bridges said this week he’s focused solely on “surviving and advancing.”

He gets his shot starting this afternoon and if it works out, will get another when the NCAA Tournament begins next week.

Whether the Spartans are good enough to carry on the tradition of March remains to be seen. There have been flashes of both good and bad, and that’s life with freshmen. Izzo only hopes the huge step he’s been predicting comes quickly.

“We might not be good enough to move on. I don’t know,” Izzo said.

“I think we are good enough to make a run here, but we might not be. In other words, we might do everything in our power and it just doesn’t work out. … We are not a team that has a very big margin for victory. I mean our margins are very, very, very small. But you know what? I’ve had other teams that have had these small of margins that made it to a Final Four.

“I don’t feel comfortable that we’re a shoo-in for anything, the tournament or advancing. But I don’t feel uncomfortable that we’re a long shot from anything, either. It’s not us-against-the-world because we have a lot of people supporting us. But maybe in belief, it’s us-against-the-world because I’m not sure there are a lot of people believing, and I can’t say I blame ’em. We’ve made it that way. It’s our job to turn that around and see what we can do in these tournaments.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @mattcharboneau

No. 12 Penn State vs. No. 5 Michigan State

Tip-off: 2:30 Thursday, Verizon Center, Washington

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Records: Penn St. 15-17, (6-12 Big Ten); Michigan State 18-13 (10-8)

Outlook: Michigan State is playing on Thursday of the Big Ten tournament for the first time since it was the seventh-seed in 2011. … MSU lost the only meeting of the season, payed at The Palestra in Philadelphia.