Game plan, focus lift MSU to Detroit
INDIANAPOLIS -- At 10 Sunday morning, the Michigan State basketball team reported for its walkthrough in a basement ballroom of the downtown Hilton.
The ballroom is called Monument Hall. What the Spartans showed their coach in that room was a monumental focus on the mission to reach the Final Four in their home state.
"They were locked in like they were in the army," Tom Izzo marveled. "I felt like saluting them.
"I went from worrying about things to leaving there saying, 'We're going to win the game.'"
A confident, driven Michigan State team did more than just win the game. It dominated the game. It so totally frustrated and demoralized Louisville, the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed, that the Cardinals virtually quit on the court in the final minutes. In the stands, their roughly 20,000-plus fans did the same, fleeing Lucas Oil Stadium well before the final horn.
A high-octane team that scored 103 points Friday was held to half that amount in a 64-52 Spartans triumph that might be Izzo's personal coaching masterpiece. The guy has done an awful lot in his career -- this will be his fifth Final Four and he's won a national title -- but this season is arguably his best work.
And this game might be the best of the best.
Izzo began the season with a team many thought could reach the Final Four, then endured a steady succession of lineup-altering injuries and illnesses. In mid-January, a lot of people would have said the key to the Spartans' playing in Detroit would be forward Raymar Morgan. In late March, Michigan State thumped Louisville without a single point from Morgan, who played just 10 minutes and committed four fouls.
The Spartans didn't need him because so many other guys stepped up -- and because their coach armed them with a brilliant game plan.
Even if part of it was an 11th-hour game plan. Izzo went into that hotel walkthrough with a modified strategy, different than the one he gave his players at practice Saturday. After some additional film study Saturday night, he tweaked the way the Spartans handled Louisville's vaunted full-court pressure.
This is Izzo at his best: grinding away during the two-day NCAA tournament weekend turnarounds. Guard Travis Walton said their coach told them, "You get me through Friday, and I'll do my best to get you through Sunday."
Promise kept. Izzo is now 14-2 in the second game of an NCAA weekend.
"He is coaching his butt off," said Michigan State's most famous fan, Magic Johnson, 30 years removed from his own NCAA tournament glory. "Kentucky, stay away."
If Kentucky had any sense, athletic director Mitch Barnhart would camp out in East Lansing with all the money the school had and not leave until Izzo says yes -- especially after seeing what he did to the Wildcats' archrival.
What they'd be missing in Izzo is a guy who deconstructed Louisville's half-court zone, gouging the Cardinals from the high post in the first half (Goran Suton scored 17 points before intermission) and on the backboard in the second (11 offensive rebounds). And locked into a half-court game, the Cards had absolutely no answer for the Spartans' air-tight defense. A team that often rode massive waves of momentum this season never scored more than four straight points.
"They weren't expecting us to be as good as we were defensively," Michigan State assistant Mike Garland said. "You could tell they were frustrated. The normal open 3 wasn't there, or the normal drive, or the normal pick and roll."
Said Magic: "We didn't let them drive, and we didn't let them get any good looks at the basket."
As the game wore on, Louisville steadily ran out of options and solutions. Its best player, Terrence Williams, made one basket in his final game as a Cardinal. It was an astonishing disappearing act for Williams, who sat out the final 4:52 of the first half and did almost nothing after the game's first 7:15.
At that point, with Louisville leading 7-6, Williams had five rebounds and two assists. He finished with six rebounds, going 31 minutes and 28 seconds between boards, and four assists. His only basket was on an alley-oop dunk.
Credit for taking him out of the game goes largely to Walton, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Despite giving away 6 inches, the rugged senior guard declared to his coaches Friday night, "I got Williams."
"The job he did on Williams was incredible," Izzo said.
When the game was over, the emotion of the moment overwhelmed Walton. He dropped into a crouch on the court, said a prayer, and cried into the Midwest Regional champion T-shirt he'd just been handed.
If the Spartans had lost, he would have become the only four-year player in the Izzo Era not to have reached a Final Four -- a streak he did not want to see end on his watch. Michigan State staffers said Walton single-handedly demanded that his teammates approach this game with total focus.
"I had pressure," Walton said. "Seniors had pressure. Our underclassmen had pressure to deliver this last class and get them to the Final Four so Coach can go on the road, anywhere he goes, and say ... 'You know what, I know you watched the Final Four on TV, I know you dream about going there. If you come to Michigan State University ... we're going to get you to a Final Four.'
"And now he can say that to every person, look them in the eyes and not have to say, 'There was one player I did not get [to the Final Four].' ... Thank you, Coach, and our coaching staff."
It also was a glorious day for State's other senior starter, Suton. I was at Michigan State's midnight madness, and the coaches were more excited about him than anyone else after a dedicated offseason revamping his body and improving his shooting range.
Coming into this season, the 6-foot-10 Bosnian had made two 3-pointers in his career. He added 15 more in State's first 35 games this season. Then Suton went Pete Maravich on the Cards, busting three 3s in the first half.
"Suton was definitely the difference-maker in the first half," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
In the second half, a little luck helped the Spartans break the game open.
It took 27:10 for either team to take a two-possession lead. Michigan State pushed it to nine, but a Jerry Smith 3-pointer cut the margin back to six at 46-40. Then Kalin Lucas banked in a 3, and State's lead was never smaller than nine again.
"I called bank," Lucas said facetiously.
A couple of minutes later, a Draymond Green tip-in hung on the rim so long that the ball actually stopped, then dropped, and the lead was double digits the rest of the way. It was that kind of day for the Spartans -- almost fated for them to fulfill their season-long dream of a home-cooked Final Four.
"It was just as big a win as our school has had because we're going to Detroit," Izzo said. "That's been a dream and a goal since the day they announced where the Final Four was in 2009."
The fact that it is the 30th anniversary of the school's first championship doubles the kismet. And the living symbol of that championship was soaking it up on the court while the Spartans cut down the nets.
"We get a chance to do it again," the Magic Man said with his famous smile. "Thirty years later."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.