Ex-Spartan Johnson praises Izzo
ST. LOUIS -- Even the ever-bubbly Magic Johnson lost confidence in Michigan State's chances of making a return trip to the Final Four when point guard Kalin Lucas went down with a season-ending injury.
But not for long.
Joining the on-court celebration minutes after the Spartans' one-point win over Tennessee, Johnson said Sunday he wasn't surprised coach Tom Izzo found a way to make it work.
"Tom Izzo does his best job in the NCAA tournament," Johnson said. "Everybody had to step up and they all stepped up in different ways when Lucas went down.
"But they never gave up and they never lost faith. They said, 'We can win without him,' and they've done that."
Johnson is one of the game's greatest point guards. He led the Spartans to their first national title with a victory over Larry Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 championship game before helping the Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA crowns.
Johnson was impressed with the way Michigan State responded this weekend without Lucas, who leads the team in scoring and assists.
Tennessee hounded replacement starter Korie Lucious, a sophomore who was 2 for 9 from the field with five turnovers, offsetting five steals and four assists in 35 minutes. Teammates did their best to ease Lucious' load and Michigan State got strong offensive performances from Durrell Summers, who had 21 points, and Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green, who had 13 apiece.
"That's what I say about this team: 'We don't have to have the point guard bring it up, we've got a lot of guys who can handle the ball,'" Johnson said. "Almost back-to-back games, a lot of guys have to contribute, and they did."
Now, Michigan State is in the Final Four for the second consecutive season. It is the Spartans' sixth trip in 12 years, all under Izzo.
Johnson said the 70-69 win Sunday reflected Izzo's no-nonsense style. He called Summers a "big-time player" and commended Morgan for his leadership.
"He recruits the type of players that fit his personality and his system," Johnson said. "They're all about defense, rebounding, toughness, and they play just like him.
"So here we are once again, going back. It's beautiful."
Michigan State's 1979 title team rode the 1-2 punch of Johnson and forward Greg Kelser to beat top-seeded Indiana State, with Johnson getting 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists and Kelser adding 19 points and eight rebounds. Johnson said the present team is much deeper.
"We don't have one guy you have to count on, that's the one good thing about this team," Johnson said. "They've got a lot of guys that can score 12-15 points, so you can't say I've got to stop so-and-so.
"And they play well together."
Izzo and his players definitely appreciate Johnson's presence. While following the Spartans he's been known to attend film sessions.
"Earvin's been so good to our program," the coach said. "He's still like a kid in a way, but he's still like a coach in a way. He still interacts with the players and yet he doesn't have to say much, and they respond."
Not long after the final buzzer, Izzo and Johnson embraced on the court.
"He just said, 'Man, I'm proud of you,'" Izzo said.
Izzo apologized for the tight finish, telling Magic, "We got a little sloppy there at times."
"He said, 'Ah, don't worry about it, worry about next week,'" Izzo said. "And I said, 'Thanks.'"
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press