Wojo: Michigan State exits dazed, defiant
Detroit — They got their shots, inside and outside, open and covered. Again and again, the Spartans heaved, more furiously and desperately as the clock ticked louder and louder.
In the end, they experienced what so many touted teams have experienced before, that all championship aspirations have two distinct outcomes – torture or magic. Michigan State felt the unbearable pain, smothered by Syracuse’s defense, buried by the weight of self-inflicted pressure.
It was stunning to see, as Michigan State’s offense fell apart and its season collapsed with a 55-53 loss to 11th-seeded Syracuse at Little Caesars Arena on Sunday. Cassius Winston’s desperate launch from near midcourt went awry at the buzzer, confirming what we already knew, that you only get so many shots.
It was an incredible 24 hours, as just the night before, Michigan’s season teetered, until Houston missed two free throws and freshman Jordan Poole drilled a long three-pointer at the horn to win it, 64-63. That’s how narrow the margins are and how harrowing this madness can be. One shot sent Michigan to the Sweet 16 to face Texas A&M in Los Angeles, while a bunch of missed shots sent Michigan State into devastation.
This will stick with Tom Izzo and his staff for a long time, as they had no answers for the Orange’s unique zone defense. They were out-maneuvered by Syracuse legend Jim Boeheim, whose team was the last to squeeze into the Tournament, but whose defense dictated everything. Izzo kept key players Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward on the bench for inexplicable stretches, while the Spartans struggled to generate any offense.
In the immediate aftermath, Izzo spoke bluntly, just short of defiantly, about his team and himself. At the end of a tumultuous season, he was digging in and looking ahead.
“We were a little young, and we had one or two distractions during the year, and that made it a little difficult,” Izzo said. “There’s some things I’m sure I could do a better job of. But you ain’t breaking me and neither are our fans, because I’ve been through enough where if I didn’t break this year, I ain’t gonna break. I understand if fans are upset, I really do, but that’s sad.”
There will be criticism of his offense, rightly so. That said, did anyone ever believe the Spartans would finish a game missing 14 consecutive shots and shoot just 26 percent? Frustration was written on their faces all day and, afterward, it was abject bewilderment.
There were some tears in the locker room, but mostly there were dazes and distant stares. Miles Bridges turned down the NBA and returned for his sophomore season with the oft-stated goal of winning a national championship, and when it was over, the numbers were ugly. He missed two three-point attempts in the final 34 seconds, trying to tie the game, and finished 4-for-18.
“Probably the saddest I’ve ever been in my life,” Bridges said. “This team gave it our all, so we don’t have any regrets. Their defense was suffocating. Michael Jordan had a great quote — you miss all the shots you don’t take. And that doesn’t make me a failure either, that I missed.”
No, it doesn’t, not as a person or as a future pro. He wasn’t the only one misfiring either. Joshua Langford was 1-for-12 and Winston was 4-for-12.
But for a team that never shied from its lofty goals, it was a failure, one of the most stunning of Izzo’s career. The Spartans finished 30-5 and won the Big Ten regular-season title, but couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the Tournament, despite playing before soldout crowds. As hard as they chased their goals, they never quite caught up with their potential. Michigan State mauled Syracuse on the offensive boards (29-7) but clanked rebounds as often as they clanked three-pointers (an abysmal 8-for-37).
There is something about the weight of expectations, whether teams admit it or not. For instance, Michigan played freely late in the season, won the Big Ten tournament, then found ways to pull out two victories to advance. Michigan State was a popular pick to win it all from the first day of the season, and never escaped the glare. Whether struggling to beat lesser foes, or trapped in the spotlight of the sexual-assault scandal on campus, it was more a grind than they probably realized.
Afterward, Izzo made a few stern vows. He said he would never downgrade this team — “Both teams played their hearts out, they just made one more basket than we did.” And he said he wouldn’t retreat from the fight to restore whatever respect was lost, for his program and his school.
If there were any suggestions Izzo, 63, would be ready to move on after 23 seasons, he dismissed them immediately.
“I never, ever planned on going anywhere, from the first rumors,” he said. “I got a job to do, and I’ve never run from anything in my life. Nothing. I don’t plan on starting now. I’ll be here. I took too many bullets this year not to be here. And we’ll be back knocking on a door to win a championship. I’m gonna make damn sure of that.”
That won’t be easy, with Bridges and Jackson expected to depart for the NBA, though neither wanted to discuss it.
Izzo now will have time to reflect, both on his coaching style and the controversies surrounding Michigan State athletics. He essentially began the process after the loss, although it could take a while to figure it all out.
“Nobody, not my wife, kids, nobody has any idea what it’s been like,” Izzo said. “And I’m gonna find a way to make it better, this university that I’ve given over half my life to, that I love and appreciate. I understand that everything’s not perfect, anywhere. Not in your house, not in my house, not in your job, not in my job. … I’m gonna hopefully be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And hopefully, there’ll be a lot of people, even standing here, that will eat their words.”
At that point, Izzo turned and stared directly at ESPN reporter Dan Murphy, whose outlet tied past assault allegations in Izzo’s program to the present. As much as that has impacted Izzo, he was more adamant about protecting his players, especially Bridges and senior leader Tum Tum Nairn.
“I like the potential of this team, I like what they did,” Izzo said. “They got beat today. It’s not the NBA, not a best-of-seven series. There are a lot of teams that have gone through that. But not a lot of teams have been through everything we’ve been through either. So I’d say I have never, ever been prouder of a team.”
It resonated with the players, who even in their lowest moment spoke vividly of now-dashed dreams. They had so many chances, so many shots. When Bridges hammered home a dunk with 7:29 left, Michigan State led 44-39, the crowd was going wild and victory seemed at hand.
And then it was gone, in a flash of Orange defense and a flurry of misfires. Boeheim used a bold fouling strategy, preventing the Spartans from tying the game with a 3, not that the shot likely would’ve fallen anyhow. All game long, there were arms and obstacles in the way.
“If we had a time machine, we would use it,” Winston said. “It just hurts. We disappointed a lot of people. Going into this tournament, I never imagined coming home early. I don’t think anybody in the country would’ve thought this was the time we’d depart. We had a lot of big aspirations, and it was a couple plays, a couple shots, that’s the difference.”
So narrow, so harrowing. In a variety of ways, the walls closed in on the Spartans, and they couldn’t escape. You aim high, you fall hard, the flip side to this crazy Tournament, the side no one ever wants to endure, or ever sees coming.