MSU's Joshua Langford, Nick Ward, Aaron Henry and Matt McQuaid talk about beating Duke to reach the Final Four. The Detroit News
They’re still here.
And if there’s a common thread tying together this oddly-stitched Final Four quilt, with two first-timers making the trip to Minneapolis and another program making its first foray in 35 years, that’s probably it.
The one-and-dones are done again, sent home before the final weekend of the NCAA tournament once more. What’s left is a curious quartet that may lack NBA-ready stars and probably won’t produce the TV ratings network executives were hoping for, but does as a collective group boast something else.
“Experience matters, it really does,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo was saying after his Spartans had outlasted No. 1 overall seed Duke on Sunday in Washington, D.C.
And here’s more proof it can, despite everything you’ve been told — and sold — in recent years about this one-and-done era of college basketball. Izzo probably understands that as well anyone in the sport, and certainly more than anyone else at this Final Four, his eighth as a head coach. (That’s eight more than the other three coaches combined this year.)
Izzo has tried and failed to get here with more talented teams, including last year’s squad that featured a pair of NBA lottery picks but couldn’t escape the opening weekend of the tournament. This one lost arguably its most coveted NBA draft prospect (Joshua Langford) at midseason, and yet here the Spartans are, headed for the Final Four thanks to, among other things, a game-winning shot that Kenny Goins — the fifth-year senior and 22-year-old former walk-on — launched over a leaping, larger-than-life Zion Williamson in the final minute of Sunday's East Region final.
“They earned their way, and that's what I think veterans do,” Izzo said of his team. “I talked to (Villanova coach) Jay Wright a lot about it a couple of years ago. And that theory about getting old — I don't want to get old, but it's nice when my players do.”
It’s nice, and it’s necessary for most programs, since the one-and-done recruits tend to flock to familiar migration points on their way to the NBA: Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and so on.
It’s also become a welcome trend of late in the eyes of some, as this’ll mark the fourth straight Final Four where the freshman-dominated teams largely have come up short. Izzo was there the last time a one-and-done group won in 2015, when a Michigan State team unlike this one he’s coaching now got thumped by coach Mike Krzyzewski’s trio of NBA-bound freshmen.
Last year’s champ, Villanova, had one in Omari Spellman, but relied heavily on a junior backcourt as it rolled to the title, much as it had in winning it all in 2016. North Carolina used a similar blueprint in 2017. And this year’s Final Four figures to be the third in the last four years without a one-and-done lottery pick on the court. (Gonzaga’s Zach Collins in ’17 was the lone exception.)
Instead, what we’ve got is another glimpse of what the future will look like, with the NBA expected to get rid of its early-entry age limit in a few years. Auburn starts three seniors and two juniors. Virginia’s six-man rotation includes three juniors and a senior. Texas Tech starts not one graduate transfer, but two.
And Michigan State? Well, the Spartans are getting big minutes from freshman Aaron Henry now, and sophomore Xavier Tillman had another terrific game against Duke. But this is Cassius Winston’s team, and his performance against the Blue Devils — 20 points, 10 assists, four steals and just one turnover in 40 minutes — was just the latest reminder of his value.
“With Winston, you have a player that can make the right play at the right time and he has tremendous poise,” Krzyzewski said, marveling at the junior’s ability “to not just handle the pressure, but still run his team.”
Michigan State’s next opponent has that as well, only Texas Tech’s Chris Beard had to go outside his program to find it after losing five seniors from last year’s Elite Eight team, including his point guard, Keenan Evans. Beard went and added a pair of sought-after graduate transfers in Tariq Owens and Matt Mooney, the latter a point guard nicknamed “The Professor” who drew serious interest from Michigan’s John Beilein last spring.
Mooney’s been through two hip surgeries and three different schools, having started his college career at Air Force before starring at South Dakota. Now, after joining a pair of returning seniors in Lubbock along with a likely top-10 pick in sophomore Jarrett Culver — “No doubt about it, to play on this stage you have to have pros,” Beard admits — he gives the Red Raiders more than just a steady hand.
In the West Region final against top-seeded Gonzaga, Mooney finished with 17 points, five assists and three steals. He also knocked down what proved to be the winning free throws with 19 seconds left.
“I just trust him,” Beard said. “He's got big-time nerves. You can't rattle him.”
MSU coach Tom Izzo talks about the win over Duke to reach the Final Four. The Detroit News
Showing their age
Other coaches wished they could say the same over the weekend.
Kentucky’s John Calipari has made two Final Fours with freshmen-led rosters, including his 2012 title team. But was busy lamenting his current team’s youthful indiscretions — the missed free throws and the defensive breakdowns — in Sunday’s overtime loss to Auburn. (“Again, when you're talking 17 and 18-year-old kids,” Calipari told reporters afterward, “there's going to be slippage sometimes.”)
Krzyzewski, meanwhile, watched Izzo’s team make several key plays coming down the stretch. He watched his own group struggle to do the same, settling for early-clock shots or forcing passes to make plays that weren’t there against the Spartans' disciplined defense. College basketball's best player, Williamson, didn’t get a touch on Duke’s final three possessions, while freshman R.J. Barrett, also projected as a top-five pick in this summer’s NBA draft, finished with seven of his team’s 17 turnovers.
“I thought they played older than we did, you know?” Krzyzewski said of the Spartans. “We had one critical possession after a timeout where we didn't really run what we were supposed to run. And we turned it over. They didn't do that. But that's what happens.”
And when it does, this is what we get: A Final Four that’s been there before, in a matter of speaking.