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Wojo: Spartans belong, but have something to prove

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Magic Johnson congratulates Tom Izzo after MSU's win over Louisville on Sunday.

It's all gravy now, right? As Michigan State celebrated its improbable Final Four berth, it had the feel of a culmination, mission completed. After all, there's nothing beyond "beyond expectations," is there?

Actually, there is. And while Tom Izzo, a hearty Upper Peninsula man, surely loves gravy, I doubt that's how he sees it. He sees Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, the elusive white whale to Izzo's Captain Ahab. He sees a program that does everything his program does, just more prolifically.

Izzo gets respect by the basketful, and his standing as an all-time great is cemented, whether he wins it all again or not. A second national championship is the goal that drives him most, but I suspect his struggles against Duke haunt him most.

Michigan State cherished the victory over Louisville, but trust me, if it were to beat Duke on Saturday night, it would be much more than a pleasant little bonus. And let's not act like it's impossible. The Blue Devils are only five-point favorites, and gradually pulled away in the second half of an 81-71 victory over the Spartans on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis.

Izzo is 1-8 against Krzyzewski and the lone victory came during another unexpected run, 78-68 in the 2005 regional semifinal. You can't say these are rare opportunities, not when Izzo is going to his seventh Final Four and Krzyzewski is headed to his 12th. But they've only met in the Final Four once, a 68-62 Duke victory in 1999.

"Somebody said, 'You guys have a good rivalry,' " Izzo said Monday. "I said, 'You can't have a rivalry when it's 8-1.' I think (Krzyzewski) has done a great job. I thought there were a couple times we could have beaten them."

Fab four

This might be the most-compelling Final Four ever, with four wildly successful coaches — Izzo, Krzyzewski, Kentucky's John Calipari and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. There's 38-0 Kentucky, trying to complete college basketball's first undefeated season since 1976. There are three No. 1 seeds who have combined for seven losses (Michigan State has 11 by itself). There isn't a fluke in the bunch, and that includes the Spartans.

Let's get this straight. Michigan State may be a seven seed but it's not George Mason, which reached the 2006 Final Four as an 11. Michigan State is more like Connecticut last year, a seven seed that won the championship led by breakout guard Shabazz Napier (see: Travis Trice).

That's why this is more than ladles of gravy for the Spartans, because they're not a lucky upstart that doesn't belong. Michigan State dropped several tight games because of missed free throws and has played eight overtime contests, counting the 76-70 victory over Louisville, and lost five.

Listen. It's hard to pick against the Blue Devils and likely No. 1 pick Jahlil Okafor. They start three gifted freshmen — Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. Duke has eight McDonald's All-Americans; Michigan State has one (Branden Dawson).

But the way Trice and Bryn Forbes are shooting, Denzel Valentine is leading, Dawson is rebounding and reserves are contributing, it wouldn't be a shocking upset.

Heck, it wouldn't be a shocking upset if Wisconsin beat Kentucky.

The Spartans can't match the Blue Devils' athleticism and size, but they can match the frenzied energy and they can play stifling defense. They certainly don't look like a team that's spent, as they harassed Louisville into missing an astounding 26 of 32 shots after halftime.

'Program of excellence'

It's easy to measure height and stats and credentials. It's impossible to measure drive, and Michigan State keeps referencing a pair of losses — to Connecticut in the Elite Eight and to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game this season. The Spartans are seeking closure by eraser, trying to wipe it clean. And they're spilling so much sweat — cutting down nets by cutting down on mistakes — it's almost mesmerizing.

"Looking back, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I'm kind of happy we did lose last year," Trice said. "Because it makes us feel so much better to be on the other side of it. We push harder now than we ever have.'

The Spartans were devastated after that 60-54 loss to the Huskies, when everyone from President Obama to Fred in the mailroom picked Michigan State to win it all. Turning despair into something useful is often tried, not often successful.

The sport's bluebloods — Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas — have blueprints, but Michigan State is different. Izzo and his program don't possess the same recruiting pull, although it hasn't hampered them much.

Izzo knows his system of toughness and grinding effort works, and he'd love to see it further validated. When Michigan State won the championship in 2000, it beat Wisconsin and Florida in the Final Four, not a blueblood. Under Izzo, the Spartans are 2-4 in national semifinals.

Kentucky enters with the most pressure by far, but Michigan State isn't headed there on a lark. Krzyzewski has four national titles and knows what a storied program looks like.

"Tom is as good as there is, not just a coach, but he's a great guy," Krzyzewski said. "Nothing surprises me that he and his program would do. They don't have a team, they have a program, a program of excellence."

That's been confirmed, several times over. As gratifying as this Final Four is for the Spartans, there's no sense getting satisfied now. It's never greedy to want more than gravy.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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