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John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins recap UM's NCAA tournament highs and MSU's lows and look ahead to the Wolverines' Sweet 16 appearance. Detroit News

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The heads were hanging Sunday evening inside Michigan State’s locker room at Little Caesars Arena. Voices were low and there were some eyes that were red and puffy.

Reality was setting in quickly for the Spartans, a team that had set a national championship as its goal, but was instead heading home after failing to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

“This was one of the best teams I ever played on, the best team I ever played on,” sophomore Nick Ward said. “It just hurts.”

While many outside the program believed Michigan State had as good a shot as any team to win it all, the players did, as well. That’s what made the loss Sunday to Syracuse all the more difficult.

“If we had a time machine, we would use it,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “But we’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to get better.”

They’ll have to do that likely without sophomore Miles Bridges and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., both projected as lottery picks if they head early to the NBA Draft, something both are expected to do.

So the getting better will have to happen without them, and instead of wallow in the sorrow that was heavy on Sunday, Winston and the rest of the Spartans were doing their best to look to the future.

“Tomorrow. The off-season begins tomorrow,” coach Tom Izzo said outside of the locker room. “We’ve got some recruiting to do and we can actually practice a little bit until the Final Four is over. I might do that just because I think it will do some good to get back in the gym and not hang around with people I don’t want to hang around with. So, I’ll hang around my players, my family and get back in the gym.”

What Izzo will have to work with by the time next season begins will have a significantly different look and won’t come with the same expectations, to be sure. Bridges and Jackson likely will be playing in the NBA while Sunday’s game was the last in college for Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. There’s also no guarantee Ward doesn’t at least test the NBA waters.

Filling all the holes will be important for the Spartans, who will, no doubt, have similar expectations next season. A top-10 recruiting class is coming in and most likely will make early contributions. Add in the late progress from freshman Xavier Tillman to the core of the returning players — Winston, Ward, Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins — and Michigan State won’t be lacking talent.

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What it will be searching for is the chemistry the group had this season.

That chemistry was tested often, first after a report questioning Izzo’s handling of past sexual assault cases had the coach facing regular questions beyond basketball, and then when Bridges’ name came up in a report on an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball.

Through it all, the Spartans’ locker room never splintered.

“I want this team to be remembered as a team that could still stick together through times of adversity,” Nairn said. “It’s easy to be up when everything’s going good, but when everybody’s throwing different things about you, things that aren’t true, it’s hard to stay together as a collective group. I think what we did this year was we stuck together through it all, the good times, the bad times, the ups, the downs, we just stayed together like this and that’s what Spartan Nation is all about, being a Spartan is all about is picking up each other, and that’s what we did.

“I would say a team that continued to grow through adversity and always stuck together no matter what.”

Finding the tenacious leader on the floor is something the Spartans still are seeking. Whether someone on the current roster could become that type of leader remains to be seen, and there’s always a chance one of the newcomers could be that personality.

Forward Marcus Bingham (Grand Rapids Catholic Central), forward Gabe Brown (Belleville), forward Aaron Henry (Indianapolis Ben Davis), guard Foster Loyer (Clarkston) and forward Thomas Kithier (Clarkston) will all be on campus by late summer and will have a shot. But matching the cohesion of this season’s team will be tough.

“As everybody knows, it’s been a different year,” Izzo said. “I don’t think me, personally, I could have gone through the year without a group like I had. In fact, I know there would be no way.

“I’ve had a couple disappointments with some pretty good teams, and that’s the way basketball goes. And I think Tum said it best to our team, you know, that: Hold your head up high; don’t let one game — we’re 30-5 — define who we are. Let the times when we went through some tough times define who we are, the way we stuck together and hung together and battled together.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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