Wojo: Sparkling Spartans stuck with short end of the draw

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo soaks in the Big Ten tournament championship.

 All the ingredients were on impressive display in a manic, frantic Big Ten tournament championship game. Michigan State showed again it has most of the physical elements and all the mental elements to win a championship. Michigan showed it’s not far behind, even as it faltered late in a third straight loss to its rival.

The Spartans again picked on the Wolverines’ flaws, while the Wolverines accentuated the Spartans’ strengths. Michigan State was better down the stretch in its 65-60 victory Sunday, and frankly, it deserved better from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

Even by the NCAA’s sketchy seeding standards, this was ridiculous. Somehow, after winning the Big Ten tournament and tying for the regular-season title, the Spartans remained a No. 2 seed and got stuck in the East region with overall No. 1 Duke. The Wolverines got a slight break as a No. 2 headed to the West, where Gonzaga is the lowest-rated No. 1.


Somehow, the ACC landed three No. 1 seeds — Duke, Virginia, North Carolina — and the Big Ten, among the top three conferences all season, got none. Somehow, for a game that matters so much to the participants, the Big Ten tournament never seems to matter in the NCAA brackets. Somehow, in the aftermath of a rousing, riveting victory, Tom Izzo was asked why his team ended up where it did.

The nutty nutshell explanation from the committee: The Spartans’ victory Sunday jumped them ahead of Kentucky, up to No. 6 in the overall order. That gave Michigan State the priority to stay closer to home in the East, where the regional final will be in Washington D.C. But it’s not like Kentucky was remotely damaged, landing the 2 seed in the Midwest, which funnels to Kansas City. And it’s not like Michigan was overly damaged, although if it advances past the first weekend, it’ll head out west to Anaheim.

But hey, there is a bright spot. At least we get to see Michigan State and Michigan on the same floor again. In the NCAA pod system, both open in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, with Michigan State facing Bradley and Michigan facing Montana, a rematch of last year’s tourney opener.

Breaking it down

So, how far can the Spartans and Wolverines go? All the way to the Elite Eight, for sure. To meet again in the Final Four, well, they’d likely have to pull off unlikely upsets. 

Izzo is 1-11 against Mike Krzyzewski, and Duke has freshman star Zion Williamson back from injury. Gonzaga spent some time at No. 1 in Williamson’s absence, but lost its tourney title game to Saint Mary’s. In fact, the only top seeds to win their conference tournaments: Michigan State and Duke.

The similarities between the Spartans (28-6) and Wolverines (28-6) are abundant, even though Michigan State took command in the second half of all three games. 

The Spartans have a superb point guard (Cassius Winston), a tremendous defense, a lethal 3-point shooter (Matt McQuaid) and a rising big man (Xavier Tillman). Michigan has a terrific defensive point guard (Zavier Simpson), a tremendous defense, a potentially lethal 3-point shooter (Ignas Brazdeikis) and a rising big man (Jon Teske).

Izzo has built his reputation in March, although the Spartans haven’t reached the Sweet 16 in four years. John Beilein has been building his reputation the past five Marches, going 16-5 in the NCAA Tournament, reaching two national championship games and winning two Big Ten tournaments. The point is, be concerned about the obstacles, but don’t overlook these coaches’ postseason histories, and their ability to win all sorts of ways, mostly with defense.

Izzo wasn’t happy about the seeding, but was ecstatic about his team’s latest symposium on toughness and togetherness. It was a masterpiece in some ways, guts and gory in other ways, as one of its sparkplugs, Kyle Ahrens, suffered what appeared to be a horrific ankle injury late in the first half. As Izzo and players cried and consoled, Ahrens’ left leg was put in an air cast and he was rolled off on a stretcher.

For a Michigan State team beaten up but never beaten down, it could’ve been the final crusher. 

But in this marvelous season, it became yet another inexplicable rallying point. X-rays revealed Ahrens suffered a severe ankle sprain, but no break, and he returned to watch and cheer from the bench. And when Michigan built a 13-point lead in the second half, it was Ahrens’ buddy, McQuaid, who shot Michigan State back, finishing with 27 points and seven 3-pointers.

“I’ve never been prouder of a team in my life,” Izzo said. “Coaches say that every time after they win, and year after year, I’ve had some incredible teams and incredible guys. 

“But what these guys have been through, nobody will ever know.”

Surging Spartans

The amazing part of this run is, the Spartans had every incentive to rest a bit and get ready for the big tournament, and instead attacked like it mattered even more. McQuaid played 39 minutes and Winston, who has an achy toe and an achy knee, played 38 minutes and score 14 points. His twisting drive to power in a layup over Teske finally gave the Spartans the lead 62-60, and they finished on a 10-0 run.

It was wildly impressive, but apparently not a big factor to the Selection Committee. Chairman Bernard Muir said Michigan State and Michigan were pretty much set as 2 seeds before the game began. In that case, why does the Big Ten let its tournament get marginalized so obviously? In the glow of a momentous victory, Izzo showed restraint, with a suitable smidge of disdain.

“I’m not upset about that, I’m used to it,” he said. “I just think the conference deserves some things, because this was the toughest conference top to bottom in the country.”

The Big Ten played 20 conference games for the first time, and Michigan State’s biggest crime was losing twice to Indiana, which didn’t make the Tournament. 

The league was strong at the top with Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue, but not as strong as the ACC. The Big Ten landed the most teams in the field — eight — but the seedings suggested the lower half of the conference was down.

Doesn’t matter now. If Michigan State wants to win it all, it’d probably have to play Duke at some point anyhow. 

If Michigan wants to win it all, it’ll have its own challenge —trying to rediscover its offensive fluidity, which means better shot selection by Jordan Poole and more production from Charles Matthews.

The ingredients are there, for both teams, otherwise they wouldn’t be a combined 56-12, earning No. 2 seeds. No, their paths aren’t clear, and you can argue the Spartans’ path isn’t totally fair. Neither team has done anything easily this season, so they should be right in their element, capable of just about anything.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski