Commentary

Sparty helped save the party

Despite a convincing loss to UNC, Michigan State made its mark on the Final Four

Originally Published: April 6, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- North Carolina deserved to win the national title, but Michigan State saved the Final Four.

And the lasting legacies from the Final Four will be the overwhelming support the Spartans received, their ability to rally the masses and their ability to do it again next season and beyond.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIn retrospect, Tom Izzo and his team got a lot out of the Final Four despite Monday's loss.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo isn't ready to put the Spartans among the ultra elite in the game because he doesn't want complacency within the program. But only a handful of schools -- Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas and North Carolina -- could produce 50,000 to 60,000 fans inside a dome for a game. Spartans fans have consistently rallied to support their green and white, especially Izzo, when it matters most.

This Final Four desperately needed Michigan State. Without the Spartans, the NCAA would have had no shot to set an NCAA tournament attendance record of 72,456 fans on Saturday at Ford Field, then break that record with Monday's attendance of 72,922 -- the largest crowd to witness a championship game. The snowy Monday morning didn't deter the Spartans faithful from being here for this historic event.

"This was a happening," said Izzo, the perfect coach to rally around a cause. Izzo is from Iron Mountain, Mich., and he never shies away from his Upper Peninsula roots no matter how much his legend grows in this state. "If there was a better venue, I don't know where it would be. This place was alive, and so was this city.

"I loved every minute of it," Izzo said after the Spartans' 89-72 loss to the Tar Heels. "I wish we played better, and this setting deserved a great game. It wasn't, but I don't feel bad about it, either. We earned our right to be here. We beat some very good teams to get here, and a very, very, very good team beat us and beat us pretty good."

The Spartans won the Big Ten by four games. It's not even close anymore in this league. The Spartans are to the Big Ten what Kansas is to the Big 12, North Carolina and Duke are to the ACC and UCLA is to the Pac-10. The Spartans are the Big Ten's flagship program.

The Spartans weathered key injuries and illnesses throughout the season. Yet when they needed to perform, they did. Michigan State earned a No. 2 seed, knocked off an extremely talented No. 10 seed (USC) in the second round and got by No. 3 Kansas, No. 1 Louisville and No. 1 Connecticut before being outrun by the Tar Heels.

"Michigan State is very good, but you can't count us as one of the programs that draws recruits for no reason, and there are four or five that are like that," Izzo said.

Ken Lucas
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesKalin Lucas and his teammates struggled Monday night, but the future for MSU looks bright.

That may be true. But Izzo doesn't have to put himself down. He's not the type to stand up and scream "We're an elite."

"I'm really happy with the progress and direction we're going in," Izzo said. "It wasn't easy to get here, we had injuries, it was tough. But now that it's over, yeah, there was some pressure to get here. I almost felt like it was like we're just worn out from the process. I didn't feel like that the last couple of weeks, and I think when I watch the film, it will still be a big part North Carolina. But we didn't play as good, and that's the only thing I'm disappointed about."

Before Izzo could find his voice in the locker room after the game, Draymond Green stood up and addressed his team.

"I just told the guys we had to keep our heads up," said Green, a freshman from Saginaw, Mich. "I told the seniors they had a great career and I learned something from each and every one of them, and for the underclassmen, it should give us the edge to work that much harder."

Green said more, specifically about replicating Carolina's path.

"It was supposed to be what a coach comes up with, but when he asked if he could speak, he said, 'Remember, North Carolina was down 41-12 or whatever it was to Kansas last year [in the national semifinal] and came back and made a game of it,' and then he added, 'Look where they are today,'" Izzo said. "That was pretty good. That's my job, maybe he could coach this team. It was a great line, and he understood that everybody goes through these things and sometimes you have to go grow."

The Spartans will lose seniors Goran Suton, Travis Walton and Marquise Gray. All will be key departures. But the core that returns (led by Delvon Roe, Raymar Morgan, Kalin Lucas, Chris Allen and Durrell Summers) will ensure the Spartans will be one of the favorites to be in Indianapolis for next season's Final Four.

[+] EnlargeTravis Walton & Tom Izzo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSenior Travis Walton left a positive impression on Tom Izzo and the Spartans program.

"I'm really interested to see how Lucas and Allen play, a terrific backcourt," Izzo said. "Delvon Roe will get a lot better. That kid has been through so much [microfracture surgery on his right knee in December 2007]. And he'll get a lot better. We've just got to figure out how to get a center in there."

The Spartans had two of their worst outings in this building against the same team. In between, the Spartans were one of the top teams in the country and did something no other program could have done, not even Carolina.

The Spartans rescued the Final Four and ensured a festive atmosphere in Detroit. The Tar Heels thrived this season in most hostile environments, and they quieted the crowd from the outset Monday night. They clearly were the story on the court.

But Michigan State -- its road to Detroit, its national semifinal victory over Connecticut and its undeniable strength in numbers, led by the unassuming Izzo from the U.P. -- was every bit as memorable in this event.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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