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MSU’s 20-year NCAA tournament streak difficult, memorable

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — A little more than a week ago, before Michigan State knew it had locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament, coach Tom Izzo was asked if Spartans fans have started to take things for granted in March.

“Hell,” Izzo joked, “I think our people have forgotten what it’s like to not be in the Final Four.”

That’s how it is with expectations and under Izzo, Michigan State expects to be playing in Final Fours. He’s taken the Spartans to seven, winning the national championship in 2000.

But almost as impressive as the Final Fours and all the wins — he has 46 victories and a winning percentage of .719, fifth-best among active coaches — is the fact this is the 20th consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s the third-longest active streak behind Kansas (28) and Duke (22).

Izzo’s 20 straight appearances is the longest by a Big Ten coach and is third all-time behind Dean Smith (23) and Mike Krzyzewski (22).

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“You hope people appreciate how hard it is, because there’s been a lot better programs than ours, probably, that have had more than one or two years of slip-ups,” Izzo said. “North Carolina, Kentucky. I mean, it’s been amazing. … The streak is the streak. And as I hear pro guys say records are made to be broken.

“Is it important to me? You’re damn right it’s important to me. It’s important to me because it shows the consistency.”

As Michigan State gets set to play Miami (Fla.) on Friday in Tulsa, Okla., as part of the Midwest Regional, here are some notable moments from Izzo’s 20-year run.

The first one

Following NIT appearances in each of Izzo’s first two seasons, they earned a No. 4 seed in the East Regional in 1998 and opened with Earl Boykins-led Eastern Michigan. Some predicted an upset, but Michigan State cruised and then fought past Princeton to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1990. The run ended in the regional semifinal against top-seeded North Carolina as 18 points from Mateen Cleaves wasn’t enough to match the powerful Tar Heels, led by future NBA stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. However, it was enough to prove the young Spartans were just getting started.

Final Four flurry

By the time Izzo had reached his second NCAA Tournament as head coach, the “Flintstones” were in complete control as Cleaves, Antonio Smith, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson led the Spartans to a No. 1 seed and a trip to their first Final Four since Michigan State won the national title in 1979. They came up short to Duke, 68-62, in the national semifinal, but by the time they got back in 2000 — even without a graduated Smith — there was no stopping them as the Spartans won a slugfest over Wisconsin, then rolled over Florida in the title game, complete with a heroic return from Cleaves after badly spraining his ankle. A year later, with Bell joined by a pair of budding stars — sophomore Jason Richardson and freshman Zach Randolph — Michigan State was back in the Final Four. It ended in a thud in the national semifinal as Arizona cruised.

Emotional wins

There have been plenty along the way, and the weekend at The Palace of Auburn Hills in 2000 ranks right near the top. In front of a home crowd, the Spartans had to rally in both games, namely a semifinal win over Syracuse when they trailed by 10 at the half. Two days later, a big second half knocked off Iowa State and it was on to the Final Four.

The improbable 2005 Final Four run might have produced the greatest weekend ever under Izzo as Michigan State beat top-seeded Duke — Izzo’s only victory over the Blue Devils — in the Sweet 16 and followed that with a double-overtime win against Kentucky. It’s a game that often gets mentioned as one of the best in Tournament history as Kentucky’s Patrick Sparks tied the game at the end of regulation with a 3-pointer that danced around the rim. But 24 points from Shannon Brown and 21 from Maurice Ager sent MSU back to the Final Four.

“We had plenty of potholes and valleys — even black holes — during this journey,” enior Chris Hill said. “We have been through it all, but here, at the end of the day, we are still standing.”

Hometown heroes

As big as those wins were, not many runs — outside of winning it all in 2000 — matched the journey to Ford Field in 2009. Michigan State already had beaten the odds when it took out No. 1 overall seed Louisville in the regional finals. But as the Spartans got ready play in Detroit, the city less than 90 miles from campus that was battling back from difficult economic times, they became everyone’s team, bringing together fans from throughout the state. “We are the blue-collar team and this is the blue-collar city, and it was amazing, amazing to walk out of that tunnel,” Izzo said. “It was an incredible setting. I hope that we were a ray of sunshine and distraction for them. … And we’re not done yet.”

That came after the national semifinal win over Connecticut when Detroit natives Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers led the way. “The crowd was amazing,” Summers said. “On Monday night, we’re going to play for the whole state of Michigan and the city of Detroit.”

The fairytale ended two nights later when a loaded North Carolina team kept Izzo from his second title.

The tougher times

It hasn’t all been good news for Michigan State in March. While the seven Final Fours are often referenced — both those expected and the ones that came out of nowhere — it’s the early exits and the crushing defeats, not surprisingly, that get left out.

The Spartans have gone one-and-done five times and, of course, none were bigger than last season. Michigan State entered the Tournament as a No. 2 seed but a team many were picking to win it all after winning the Big Ten tournament and riding the play of Associated Press national player of the year Denzel Valentine, who happened to guarantee a title earlier in the year. Instead of an expected run to Houston, however, the Spartans ran into No. 15 Middle Tennessee State, the Conference USA team that couldn’t miss and never trailed as it knocked off MSU, 90-81, in one the biggest upsets in Tournament history.

Izzo called it the hardest lost he’d ever gone through while Valentine searched for answers, the dream gone for he and fellow seniors Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes. “Today it kind of fell apart. It just sucks right now because I know the capability our team had,” Valentine said.

Middle Tennessee, of course, didn’t shoot well two days later and was sent packing by Syracuse, which eventually reached the Final Four.

“It’s a dream and it’s a nightmare,” Izzo said.

“The dream is a reality and that’s what is cool and cruel about this tournament. One and done is a special thing and you don’t get to have bad days.”

No. 9 Michigan State vs. No. 8 Miami (Fla.)

What: First-round game in NCAA Tournament (Midwest Region)

When: 9:20 p.m. Friday

Where: BOK Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma

TV/radio: TNT/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 19-14, Miami 21-11