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Wojo: Final Four no long shot for emerging MSU

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Denzel Valentine celebrates when the buzzer sounds as Michigan State beats Virginia, 60-54, at Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sunday. The Spartans have shown they’re rapidly improving.

Charlotte, N.C. – They found their way back, as they often do. Actually, the Spartans pounded their way back, from the brink and the bubble, all the way back to a place they know well.

This Michigan State team went from unfamiliar to so familiar in a stunning flash. Its bludgeoning defense is back, along with its confidence. Make no mistake, all its goals are back in reach, including the Final Four.

It would have been silly to say that six weeks ago. Today, Michigan State is in the Sweet 16 after a grinding 60-54 victory over Virginia on Sunday, reviving its fabled green sneer. With the top two seeds in the East Region — Villanova and Virginia — vanquished, the path is wide open. Michigan State will face No. 3 seed Oklahoma in Syracuse on Friday, and the Spartans should be a fashionable Final Four favorite now.

Tom Izzo has done this so many times — the seventh Sweet 16 in eight years — we're officially out of adjectives. But what these Spartans have pieced together is amazing, taking giant steps after a lot of missteps, led by rapidly improving leaders.

When Travis Trice, the slender guard who seems to grow muscles by the day, dribbled down the final ticks of the shot clock, waved off a screen, then coolly drilled a three-pointer with 2:51 left, Michigan State was ahead 52-44. Several times this season, they've gotten that far, then frittered it away.

This time? Trice was ice, hitting five of six free throws in the final four minutes. Afterward, Izzo sounded as proud as he's ever been, while Trice stood against a wall and finally exhaled. He scored 23 points and played 39 of 40 minutes, and along with roommate buddy Branden Dawson, showed the passionate power of the last go-around.

"Our thing is, as seniors, we gotta spill our guts every time we go out there to play," Trice said. "I was tired, but this is what you live for. In a timeout with about eight minutes left, my teammates said, 'Listen, you can be tired tomorrow, don't let this be the way you end.' … It's great, especially after early on people were questioning whether we'd even get in. I feel like we're peaking at the right time."

Against the second-seeded Cavaliers, it was on graphic display. The Spartans are still prone to mistakes, hitting only 10 of 19 free throws before making the clutch ones down the stretch. But against the nation-leading defense, Michigan State committed only six turnovers, and reminded the Cavaliers what a real punishing defense feels like.

It was gruesome at times, every possession an exercise in pain. Virginia shot 29.8 percent and hit two of 17 three-pointers. The Cavaliers generally play offense as if they're bored, and on this day, they got gored. Leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon was smothered by Trice and Tum Tum Nairn Jr., shooting 3-for-12.

So how have the Spartans turned it on with such clarity? The crushing overtime loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game definitely has become a rallying cry. That was only a week ago but it seems like, oh, six weeks ago, when the Spartans looked lost.

"These emotions have lasted a whole year, so many games we were right there, and it's been frustrating," Izzo said. "These guys should feel good, because so far, they've gotten a lot out of what they have. I'm proud of them, and I don't use that word often during the season."

The gear switches now, because even as a No. 7 seed, there's little doubt Michigan State can beat Oklahoma. And it can be said without apology — Michigan State can beat just about anybody not named Kentucky.

From a 13-7 record on Jan. 24 to one of 16 teams still standing, the Spartans' transformation can be tied to a few things. Izzo is one of the all-time great Tournament coaches, now 20-4 in the second game of a weekend, when preparation is paramount. He and his staff altered Michigan State's defense during the two-day turnaround, moving big guys Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling into the lane to stem Virginia's drives.

Izzo also has three players in Trice, Dawson and Denzel Valentine who are seasoned and passionate, and when they get that zoned-in look, look out. Trice has had it for weeks. Valentine adopted it after committing the late turnover against Wisconsin, and has bounced back.

And Dawson again is showing, the deeper the team goes, the better he is. He has become Michigan State's bright-lights guy, dominating Virginia in last year's Tournament, then setting the tone again. He swarmed on defense, ran the court like a wide receiver and let everyone know he was ready. Normally, Valentine leads the raucous pregame huddle, but Dawson loudly jumped in.

"B.J. (Dawson) just took it over for some reason, so I was like, oh, he's ready to play," Valentine said with a laugh. "He just came out like a monster and did what he's supposed to do."

It was staggering at times, as the Spartans dismantled a team that was 30-3. When Izzo said the other day he detected something growing within his team, it wasn't lip service. It's a tight, fun group, and Trice says of Dawson, "We're like brothers; blood couldn't bring us any closer."

They're driven brothers, especially with Michigan State five years removed from its last Final Four. It's early yet to say if the Spartans are a true Final Four fit, but Virginia coach Tony Bennett sounded like he'd just seen a ghost, the same energy and fight he saw from Michigan State last year.

"They have guys with experience and they understand who they are, they're very clear," Bennett said. "It's Dawson's team, it's Trice's team, and Valentine. They're not quite as explosive offensively but they're very sound, very tough."

How many times have we heard that assessment from an opposing coach who just went through the Michigan State shredder in the Tournament? This one is especially gratifying for Izzo, who always believed he had the makings of a good, cohesive team, but couldn't quite piece it together.

He knows a lot more now than he did two months ago, six weeks ago, a week ago, a day ago.

"I give credit to our seniors and our junior, these three guys did it," Izzo said. "Branden's an unbelievable teammate, sometimes too good of a teammate, he's got to get a little more selfish. And Trav and Zel are just special."

This was a special victory, and could signal more. The Spartans are back as a threat, back as a March menace, and the way they look, back for even more.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Spartans vs. Sooners

What: East Region Sweet 16matchup.

When: Friday, 10:07 p.m.

Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

TV/radio: TBS/WJR 760.

At stake: Winner plays Louisville-North Carolina State winner on Sunday for spot in Final Four.

Records: Michigan State 25-11, Oklahoma 24-10

Series: MSU leads, 5-3, including an 87-76 victory in their last meeting, Nov. 23, 2013, in the championship game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York.

Sweet 16: It's the Spartans' seventh appearance in eight years, the Sooners' first since 2009.