Niyo: Spartans', Wolverines' March mantra — Nothing will be easy

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Matt McQuaid holds the Big Ten tournament trophy after the Spartans down the Wolverines 65-60 Sunday.

Chicago — Tom Izzo wasn’t going to let anybody spoil his mood Sunday evening.

But not long after Michigan State’s coach stood on a makeshift stage with his team celebrating a Big Ten tournament championship at the United Center — and a third win in as many weeks over in-state rival Michigan, thanks to another spirited second-half rally by the Spartans – Izzo stood in a hallway and considered it.

The NCAA Tournament’s selection committee had just awarded his team a No. 2 seed, as expected. But they’d also rewarded his team for adding another Big Ten trophy to its case by placing the Spartans in the same East Region as the Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Duke, which also happens to be Izzo’s personal nemesis.

“But I’m not upset about that,” he insisted. “I’m used to it.”

And besides, he added, “Nothing's been easy all year. Why change now?”

So there’s your new March mantra for Michigan State. And maybe for Michigan, too, as the Big Ten’s two best teams stayed together to the end, going back and forth in another tense rivalry game Sunday with a title on the line and a divided crowd roaring.

When it was over, after Cassius Winston and his running mates came up with the clutch plays they needed — not to mention an inspired performance from senior Matt McQuaid in Sunday's 65-60 thriller — they were still inseparable.

The Spartans and Wolverines headed home to Michigan on Sunday night, but they’re both bound for Des Moines to begin their NCAA tournament paths Thursday.

Michigan State drew No. 15 seed Bradley in its first-round game, while Michigan, the No. 2 seed in the West, gets a odd rematch with Montana, the same first-round opponent it faced in that surprising run to the national title game last spring.

It’s in the wider view, though, that Izzo & Co. were left to wonder what they were missing. Or more pointedly, what’d they’d really gained Sunday, other than the obvious: Another title that will torment their rivals from Ann Arbor.

Bernard Muir, the chairman of the tournament selection committee, claimed Michigan State was still under consideration for a No. 1 seed entering the weekend, though the end result suggested otherwise. He also said Sunday’s win in Chicago “leapfrogged” the Spartans over Kentucky among the No. 2 seeds, moving them from seventh to sixth on the overall list.

Hey Rand McNally

From there, it was a geography lesson, of sorts. Because with only the top No. 2 seed (Tennessee) protected from getting slotted in the same region as the No. 1 overall team (Duke), the Spartans’ fate came down to Washington, D.C., the East Regional site, being closer than Kansas City, which will host the Midwest Regional. In other words, the committee felt like it was doing Michigan State a favor.


Still, for the Spartans, who had the most “Quadrant 1” wins — the new metric used by the committee — of any team in the nation this season, it just didn’t feel right. Especially when you consider they won a share of the Big Ten regular season crown and then added a tournament title this weekend. 

“This is supposed to be the toughest conference in the country, right?” Izzo asked rhetorically. “Everybody’s saying it. … But it is what it is."

He’s right, of course. And the fact the Big Ten bucked common sense in favor of the almighty dollar by moving to a 20-game conference schedule certainly wasn't lost on Izzo on Sunday night. Not after watching the ACC claim three of the four No. 1 seeds.

But while no one wearing green wanted to hear it on St. Patrick's Day night, this bracket might be a blessing in disguise for the Spartans, who haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since that Final Four run in 2015.

Injuries have taken a toll, and Kyle Ahrens' gruesome ankle injury Sunday was another shock to the system. Tears flowed Sunday, and McQuaid responded with a career-best shooting night in honor of his close friend. ("I love you," he told Ahrens as he was being wheeled off the court on a stretcher. "We got this.") But while X-rays were negative, Ahrens' season is over, and Izzo will have to adjust his rotations once more. 

The same thing happened when Michigan State lost Nick Ward for a month to a broken hand, though. And Xavier Tillman’s emergence over that stretch helped transform the Spartans’ ball-screen efficiency at both ends of the court. Witness that game-tying basket Sunday with 1:19 left. (“Tillman is just such a different guy to guard right now,” Beilein said. “He’s really good.”) So, opportunity knocks once more for a team that Izzo said Sunday he's as proud of as any he's every coached.

And assuming Bradley isn’t this year’s Loyola-Chicago — same conference, no nun — or another Middle Tennessee State, for that matter, Michigan State should make it to the nation's capital. The second-round matchup doesn’t seem all that daunting: Louisville lost eight of its last 12, and MSU thumped Minnesota by 24 in East Lansing a month ago. Then if the seeds hold, Michigan State would be facing an LSU team mired in controversy without its head coach in the Sweet 16.

On the other hand, who says you can’t win for losing? Michigan might’ve done just that Sunday, though it’s hard to measure just how much the sting of another loss to their rivals — another second-half collapse as well — might affect them going forward.

The Wolverines’ draw certainly could fall the way last year’s did as Michigan marched to the Final Four, facing nothing higher than a 6-seed until running into Villanova. There are mid-major giant-killers lurking again in the west, including No. 7 seed Nevada and No. 6 seed Buffalo. But there’s also No. 3 seed Texas Tech, a defensive nightmare that was playing as well as any team in the country down the stretch until getting upset in the Big 12 tournament.

For the moment, though, the Wolverines’ toughest opponent might be themselves. That was coach John Beilein’s repeated lament Sunday after watching his team blow another lead late against Michigan State. Monday’s film session won’t be pleasant for Jordan Poole and some of his teammates, as the coaches highlight some of the ill-advised shots and poor decisions that let this game slip away.

“I'm proud of them, we fight hard, but winning takes just about everything at this level,” Beilein said. “Hopefully, we'll learn from it so that we can play for a while in March again. If we don't, we'll be done. That's it. … You waste possessions in the NCAA Tournament, you’re probably gonna lose.”

Beilein’s teams do a better job of avoiding that than most, of course. And even after Sunday’s loss, Michigan is 19-5 in the month of March and 24-4 in neutral-court games over the last three seasons. 

They’re also led by a point guard in Zavier Simpson, who is playing at an elite level right now. In three games here in Chicago, the junior dished out 30 assists while committing just two turnovers. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis also is playing well, while sixth man Isaiah Livers has added another dimension to the offense, And with Charles Matthews back in the lineup — he's not 100 percent after that ankle injury, but he averaged 23 minutes a game in this tourney — Michigan’s vaunted defense is back in business.

As for all the rest — the brackets, the seeds, and all arguments they sow?

“You’ve got to forget about it now,” Matthews said. “Because it’s March Madness time.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo