Minneapolis — In the moments following Michigan State’s loss to Texas Tech on Saturday night in the Final Four, the media crowd began to grow outside the Spartans locker room.
The television cameras were powered on and the notepads blank, ready to process that Michigan State’s season, one that was starting to feel destined to end with a national championship, ended so abruptly.
“This is gonna be rough,” someone said, predicting the muffled voices and red eyes that normally await in a losing team’s locker room on the final weekend of the season.
But this Michigan State team has felt different all season, and when the green doors swung open, whatever flow of emotions might have existed in private had all but washed away.
Let’s not make a mistake here. The Spartans were down, crushed, really. They believed they had as good a chance as any team to walk of the court at U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night as the national champions. But it’s also a remarkably mature group, from the youngest freshman to the old man, fifth-year senior Kenny Goins.
So, yeah, they were bummed, but they also were appreciating what they had accomplished. Week after week it seemed, the Spartans were dealing with injuries that all seemed likely to derail their season. First Matt McQuaid missed three games and later Kyle Ahrens tweaked his back, an injury that lingered all season. At the end of December came the foot injury that knocked Joshua Langford out for the season and then Nick Ward’s broken hand in mid-February.
Michigan State (32-7) overcame it all, shrugging off a three-game skid in the middle of the Big Ten season to win a share of the conference title, beating Michigan twice in the final two weeks as Cassius Winston was cementing himself as the best player in the conference and one of the best guards in the nation.
Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau break down MSU's loss to Texas Tech in the Final Four. The Detroit News
Ward was back for the Big Ten tournament and the Spartans kept rolling, beating Michigan a third time in the title game. But they lost Ahrens for good that day to a sprained ankle and while still cutting down the nets at the United Center in Chicago, the Spartans found out they were a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament and had the bonus of being placed in the same region with No. 1 overall seed Duke.
The path to a Final Four seemed blocked, but, again, this Michigan State team cared little for anyone else’s expectations. It cruised through the first three games before beating Duke in the East Region final to get to the 10th Final Four in program history and first since 2015.
By the time they got to Minneapolis, many were picking the Spartans. They had the experience and they’d beaten the mighty Blue Devils. But in the end, the lack of bodies hurt against a brutally tough Texas Tech team, which beat Michigan State, 61-51, and will face Virginia on Monday night.
Heading home early stung, but it couldn’t take away from what Michigan State did this season.
“I never can feel good because you never know if you’ll ever get back here,” coach Tom Izzo said outside the locker room late Saturday night. “So, I won’t feel good tonight and I’m not gonna pretend to feel good tonight, but I bet you a couple days from now I’m gonna be so damn proud of this team for not only what they accomplished but how they did it and the joy they brought.
“It was an incredible year for me, too, just being around them.”
It won’t take away the feeling of finality for Goins and McQuaid, who each played their final game at Michigan State on Saturday. It didn’t end they way they wanted. Goins didn’t score, the first time he failed to in more than a month, while McQuaid missed a couple of big shots in the final minutes.
But they, too, couldn’t help but feel good about what they’d done.
“I’m still proud of my team for what they did this year,” Goins said. “It was a dream come true, and I’m just glad to represent all my family, my teammates and all of Spartan Nation as best as I could. Unfortunately, it’s done, but like I said, all dreams must come to an end.”
Added McQuaid, “It’s really tough knowing it’s your last game, last time putting on the jersey. We’ve had a crazy season with injuries and adversity, but I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”
Michigan State now looks to next season. It’s the nature of things in college basketball. Ward will take another look at the NBA, as he did last season, and Winston could, too.
Izzo wasn’t worried about it on Saturday night. Those decisions will come soon enough.
“A lot of guys gotta get a lot better in a lot of areas,” Izzo said. “Being good enough to be great is one thing. Being good enough to be an NBA player is another, and if we think somebody is we’ll advise them of that, but we’ll do that by talking to people we know in league.”
Expect at least Winston to be back and be joined by a healthy Langford and Ahrens. The Spartans also bring in three freshmen — two ranked among the top 50 in the nation — and the continued progress of Xavier Tillman and freshmen like Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown mean things look good for Michigan State to at least have a shot at getting to this point again next season.
“I got a feeling,” Brown said. “God works in mysterious ways, and next year I feel like we are going to be right back in this position.”
All freshmen think that. They all think they’ll be back, but Izzo knows the reality — getting to the Final Four is tough, which allows him too to appreciate what this team did.
“I can’t ask for a better run or better guys,” Izzo said. “I’ll keep knocking on the door and one of these times that door will open.”