Spartans’ tourney success somewhat surprising

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Syracuse, N.Y. — Push Tom Izzo and he will admit it — he didn’t see this coming.

Michigan State in the Sweet 16 isn’t exactly a shock considering that when the Spartans took the floor Friday night at the Carrier Dome against Oklahoma, it was the Spartans’ seventh appearance in the Sweet 16 in eight years and 13th under Izzo.

But this team wasn’t supposed to be here. After losing three key starters from last year’s team — including two first-round NBA draft picks — expectations weren’t high. But here they are, just two victories from getting to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.

“I would like to say it was a culmination of a plan,” Izzo said. “But I’m more into the ‘Wow.’ ”

It was wow for a lot of reasons.

■Because there weren’t a bunch of blue-chip recruits to replace Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling.

■Because the injuries piled up early — Javon Bess (foot), Bryn Forbes (hand), Alvin Ellis (ankle) — and lingered midway through the year with Bess being lost for good and Branden Dawson breaking his wrist.

■Because on Feb. 7, Michigan State lost at home to Illinois to fall to 15-8 and was sitting squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

But things began to change after that game. Michigan State won its next four, three on the road. Except for a collapse at home to Minnesota on Feb. 26, Michigan State was starting to pick up steam.

Michigan State was beaten soundly at Wisconsin on March 1, but responded with victories at home over Purdue and on the road at Indiana, getting contributions from the entire roster. Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine were the key components, but Ellis came up big at Indiana along with freshman Marvin Clark, while Forbes and freshman Lourawls Nairn were finding their comfort zone.

And even though he was coming off the bench, Matt Costello was becoming a consistent contributor at center.

It was still hard to see postseason success on the horizon. Michigan State had proven early it could play with the best, hanging with Duke and coming up short against Kansas and Notre Dame. But it also lost at home to Texas Southern.

But at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, the Spartans started to show what Izzo believed were their true colors — a team far better than its record showed.

“We were better than you think during the year, better than I think during the year,” Izzo said. “That’s what losing does to you; it makes you worse than you are sometimes. I mean, we played offensively and defensively pretty well in a lot of those games. Kansas, Notre Dame we played awfully well. We just didn’t make free throws. It made it look a lot worse than it was.

“(Two weeks ago) maybe we could have been 24‑6, 25‑6, and we would have been a top 12, 13, 14 team. I’m not sure I thought we could be that good.”

Win or lose Friday, the future looks bright for Michigan State. And odds are expectations will be higher in 2015-16.

Trice and Dawson will be gone. But Valentine, Costello and Forbes will be back for their senior seasons, while Bess should be healthy and Nairn and Clark should take on bigger roles.

Add in transfer Eron Harris, an explosive scorer who sat out this season, and there will be plenty of firepower.

A solid recruiting class is also on the way after two years of coming up short on some big names. Mr. Basketball Deyonta Davis leads the class, along with shooting guards Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens.

“I have a list in my desk of so many of the great coaches that never went to many of them or never went to many Elite Eights or never went to a Final Four,” Izzo said. “I just appreciate that more than you’ll ever know.”