Spartans ready to make mark, move on
Merchant finally feels at home as third season at Michigan State begins
Downs frequently follow ups in the NCAA tournament -- that's just the way it works. But for Michigan State last season, the extremes really were very extreme.
The Spartans, who hosted in the early rounds, had a made-for-TV matchup with No. 1 seed Duke at the Breslin Center. And Michigan State took advantage of it, beating former coach Joanne P. McCallie's squad 63-49 in a second-round game.
Spartans coach Suzy Merchant was very gracious afterward, crediting McCallie for having elevated the Michigan State program to the NCAA title game in 2005 before going to Duke two years later. But the Spartan fans reveled, understandably, in defeating the coach who had moved on.
"It was unavoidable that it was odd -- it hadn't been that long since she'd left," Merchant said recently. "I stood on that sideline I made some adjustments and we had a game plan. But that was a game that the players won. There was no question about it. It was almost like: Get out of their way, they were just not going to lose that game.
Really good times, for sure. But in four days, the Spartans saw the tables turn. All the great mojo present after the Duke victory went the other direction in the final minute when Michigan State played Iowa State in the Sweet 16 in Berkeley, Calif.
The Cyclones threw on a little-used press and outscored the Spartans 8-0 to close out the game and win 69-68. In terms of how quickly fortunes changed, it reminded me of watching American Lindsey Jacobellis in the snowboard cross final at the 2006 Winter Games.
Jacobellis had the event -- think motocross, kind of, except on snowboards -- all but won. She led by three seconds as she approached her second-to-last jump, so far ahead it was almost the equivalent of lapping the field in track.
But then, this being hotdogging, er, snowboarding, she decided to show off and grabbed her board on the jump. She fell, got passed and ended up with the silver.
It was stunning. Like, "Didn't she have an insurmountable lead?" Not quite. A little goofin' cost her. In a charade of a news conference, she and U.S. Ski team officials first tried to convince everyone she was "stabilizing her board." Even us nitwit writers who'd stood in the snow for a couple of hours weren't that dumb. Finally, she admitted she had just been having fun.
Of course, if the Spartans had some reason like that for how they let the Iowa State game get away, maybe it almost would have been easier. Instead, they just melted down.
"It was a nightmare," Merchant said. "One moment you're in complete control, and all of a sudden it's like, 'What just happened?'
"But we went into the offseason mad. We used that to our advantage. If we'd gotten to the Elite Eight and played Stanford, I wonder if our postseason and our intensity would be where it is today."
In other words, she's looking on the bright side. And why not? Merchant is a Michigan native who went to school and has always coached in the state. She paid her dues before getting the Spartans job. And she was embraced pretty quickly by the fans in East Lansing.
She acknowledged, though, the initial change was hard for the Spartan players who were upset to see McCallie leave.
"I don't think it was really me," Merchant said. "I could have been anybody coming in there, and they would have felt the same way. But the other thing is, there was a change of system, especially defensively.
"We went away from the zone -- which was very effective for them -- and went to more of a man-to-man. That meant, ugh, growing pains that were painful."
But by last season, the program really did seem in Merchant's hands. And this season, her third with the Spartans, she has an experienced and deep team, led by 6-foot-9 senior center Allyssa DeHaan.
She averaged 10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds last season -- not bad, but not exactly overwhelming numbers for someone with her height advantage. Merchant, though, said she expects DeHaan's senior season to be her best yet.
Of course, that is a standard coach line before a player's final year. But the earnest way that Merchant says it leads you to believe she really means it.
"I'm anxious for people to see her play this year," Merchant said. "I just think she has a different mindset. She is going after some balls, reboundingwise, that she wouldn't have before. She has a different presence about her, and a lot of confidence. Plus, she knows we have depth this year, and she doesn't have to manage her energy.
"You've seen a kid the last few years who played a lot of minutes -- and she's not really built to play long stretches at a time. I think she's excited about the depth because she can really go all-out for three to four minutes, sit down and not worry as she getting a little rest."
Aisha Jefferson, who led Michigan State in scoring last season (11.1 ppg) is back as a senior, too. Sophomore Lykendra Johnson is also expected to start at forward, with Lauren Aitch, Kalisha Keane and Courtney Shiffauer providing depth at the post.
Merchant has juniors Cetera Washington and Brittney Thomas in her backcourt, and also thinks freshman point guard Jasmine Thomas will play a lot.
"Her speed is unbelievable," Merchant said of Jasmine Thomas. "The pace changes for everybody when she steps on the floor."
League favorite Ohio State felt a lot of impact from a freshman point guard last season with Samantha Prahalis. She and center Jantel Lavender hope to propel the Buckeyes to a sixth consecutive Big Ten regular-season title. Minnesota and Purdue are also going to be in the mix, and the rest of the league could be interesting as well. There are definitely some "climber" programs in the Big Ten.
Michigan State is picked to finish second. What Merchant hopes is that even the rough parts of 2008-09 will propel the Spartans further in the postseason. And she's definitely at home now at Michigan State.
"I don't think any coach should change who they are when they come into a program," she said. "I think kids are going to sense if you're trying to be something you're not.
"My goal was to win the kids over. Maybe it took five minutes, maybe it took five months, maybe it took a year. I felt like we would do it eventually. I think you witnessed by the end of last year we had a good bond with the players."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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