By Mark Wilson
March 29, 2015

Speechless isn’t normally in my vocabulary. I can usually find something to say on just about anything. My filter was lost at birth.

Michigan State 76, Louisville 70 in OT.

I had nothing.

No words came out. I stared at the screen confused by what I was seeing.

The Spartans, in their dark green uniforms, were jumping around the Syracuse Carrier Dome like they had just gone to college basketball’s Final Four or something.

Because they had.

Final Four. MSU. SEVENTH time under Tom Izzo.

Still… nothing.

Another trip to the grand stage in Indianapolis? Another time playing hoops in APRIL? Another “March Madness” that turned into “April Anxiety?”

East Regional Champs?

Can’t be.

As Izzo and his crew cut down the nets at the home of embattled Jim Boeheim, I continued to stare mindlessly at the HD 1080P vision I was getting on the TV.

Impossible? No. Improbable? Oh yeah!

MSU graduated its three most talented studs; two of which went first round in the NBA Draft. Adreian Payne was playing his basketball in Atlanta and Gary Harris was making his way in Denver.

Keith Appling did some summer business with the Los Angeles Lakers. He is giving it a go in the “D-League.”

Only Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine returned for 2014-15 as remotely reliable performers for Izzo and his staff.

The first three games they played back in mid-November against significant competition… they lost. First to Duke and then to Kansas and then to Notre Dame.

Five days before Christmas they were shocked by Texas Southern AT HOME.

Maryland came in eight days later and dumped MSU in double overtime. The newest member of the Big Ten opened its conference life with a win in East Lansing.

The Spartans were beating the lesser teams but struggling mightily against the heavy hitters.

So, yes… they took care of Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern before losing to Maryland AGAIN; this time in College Park.

January 24th, they fell at Nebraska.

They also fell in the polls.

It was becoming obvious that Izzo was going to have a tough time hanging onto a club that was “Top 25 worthy.”

MSU won six of the next seven including both versus Michigan.

Big deal.

Eastern Michigan and the New Jersey Institute of Technology BEAT Michigan.

Will John Beilein ever live down those losses?

Who cares right now?


Still staring at the screen, I thought of the back to back losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin that had some believing the Spartans might not even MAKE the NCAA tournament.

“Bubble team,” said more than one bracketologist.

Third time was the charm against Maryland.

Izzo game-planned beautifully and MSU nipped the Terps, 62-58 at the B1G clambake in Chicago.

It was only the SECOND victory all season against a team in the Top 25.

For the first time, the Spartans had an “eye-opener.”

Still, the loss to Wisconsin on Selection Sunday earned them only a seventh seed.

I kinda went ballistic over that on social media.

Despite all the gaffes and pratfalls, a SEVEN was not justified since the green and white had played for the conference title.

When the head of the NCAA Tournament Committee admitted that the Badgers were going on the “one-line” no matter what happened, it showed the lack of respect for Izzo’s band of misfits.

Yes, I said it.


There didn’t seem to be much cohesion all season.

Dawson might have a good game when Valentine and Travis Trice did not.

Matt Costello played well defensively in spurts but mostly was a huge offensive liability.

Bryn Forbes transferred in from Cleveland State. He was Valentine’s Lansing Sexton High School buddy. He could shoot some triples but not much else.

Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis were the two sophomores that couldn’t seem, at times, to get out of their own way.

Freshman Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn was fast but couldn’t create.

Fellow frosh Marvin Clark, Jr. looked lost.

The other bench guys?

Forget it.

That’s all folks! There were no other guys. No superstars in waiting were going to save the NCAA day.

This analysis was AFTER the Big Ten Tournament.

So they beat Ohio State and Maryland?

My goodness, they had played both enough to eek out some wins, right?

Trice was the one link in the daisy chain.

He was getting better; more assured of himself on the court even though Izzo wanted to sit his butt down and play him off the bench. It only fired Travis up to “up” his game.

I had ZERO thoughts that, even though they were the B1G tourney finalist, MSU and its ELEVEN defeats had a shot at doing anything in “The Dance.”

My pick? First game/Second round loss to Georgia.

Well, got that one wrong but certainly I would be right about the pending “L” at the hands of the brilliant Virginia Cavaliers who I thought got jobbed out of a number one seeding.

Oops, wrong twice.

60-54 got Izzo his 13th taste of Sweet 16 nectar.

The opposition was Lon Kruger and Oklahoma.

My pick? Sweet 16 loss to the Sooners.

After all, Kruger wanted revenge on Izzo for all those beat-downs he suffered as coach at Illinois years ago. Kruger would finally have his way against Major Tom.

Yikes, wrong thrice.

62-58 had them in the most improbable position of playing Rick Pitino and Louisville for the right to move on to Indy.

Izzo LOVES Indianapolis.

It was there in 2000 that Tom won his only national championship in his 20 years of head coaching. The old RCA Dome will always be a special venue for Izzo, wife Lupe and his two kids who weren’t old enough to really relish the moment.

Was Steven Mateen Izzo even BORN yet?

I remember hugging Lupe while Tom was cutting down nets after the crowning triumph over Florida and seeing it on the RCA Dome big screen.

Hey, I went from reporter to MSU alum in that story.

As a student, I was in Salt Lake City when Magic, Kelser and the rest changed the game over Larry Bird and Indiana State.

21 years later, I could still feel some joy for my school ending a campaign at the pinnacle of college basketball.

You do your best, but it’s tough sometimes to remove the emotion as a human.

If I was in Syracuse on Sunday… I would have hugged Lupe again.

At least that’s what I was thinking as I stared at that scene in Upstate New York.

Cutting down more nets.

Unbridled euphoria for Valentine, Dawson, Trice, Forbes, Costello, etc.

Even the assistants, Mike Garland, Dane Fife and long-timer Dwayne Stephens couldn’t contain themselves.

D.J. is one of my all time favorite Spartans. What a cool humble guy as a player and now assistant coach.

Fife is from a hoops family with brothers Dugan and Jeremy both players (Dugan at Michigan) and his dad Dan Fife the veteran coach at Clarkston High School.

Izzo doesn’t hold back praise for all his staff.

Oh and yes, I picked Pitino to beat Izzo.

Louisville won the national championship a couple of years ago and they still had players from that grouping. Ironically, of course, they won that title over Michigan.

You could have knocked me over with a blade of Kentucky bluegrass when MSU had finished off the 76-70 overtime victory.

As usual, Izzo gave the head-shake to Pitino when the two met at mid court. The head-shake is Izzo’s way of saying he had NO IDEA his team could beat yours. Izzo does it every single time he beats anyone and it’s classic.

Every… single… time.

Tom isn’t about to flail his arms grabbing players and kissing them. He has been through this like its old hat and he has some old hats.

All those hats he has accumulated when his school goes to yet another FINAL FOUR.


I mean, c’mon! I picked them to lose all four games in the tourney with no rhyme or reason to pick them to be a Final Four unit.

It makes no sense.

But, what an amazing accomplishment.

Maybe it’s just me. I think just MAKING the Final Four is a huge, hairy deal.

Think about it.

There are more than 320 universities, and mounting, that enter each season with a chance to get there.

I don’t care who you are. We’ve seen enough awesome runs like Butler and George Mason and Northern Iowa to believe ANYTHING is possible in this “Hoosiers” movie-like event.

This isn’t similar to making the conference finals in the NBA or NHL.

Only 30 teams vie for those respective “final fours.”

We’re talking more than THREE HUNDRED.

Izzo is now going for the seventh time.

Seven times in 20 years of coaching and he didn’t even make the dance his first two seasons. That means Tom is a part of this waltz A THIRD of his Spartans’ head coaching life.

He is a Final Four coach nearly a third of his career.

Big time stuff.

If you don’t think just getting to the Final Four is spectacular, consider this.


MSU, DePaul, Penn and the previously mentioned Bird-led Indiana State made up the Final Four that year.

The Demons, Quakers and Sycamores haven’t even sniffed getting back to a Final Four.

DePaul has made it as far as the Sweet 16 three times; most recently in 1987. Hell, they haven’t even been over .500 in NINE years.

Pennsylvania, Ivy League school, has made it past the first round only twice since ’79. Lost in the second round both times.

Indiana State?

Post Larry Bird, the Sycamores have gone back to the NCAA’s a rockin THREE TIMES.

They’ve won ONE tournament game; that coming in 2001.

Go tell those three fine academic institutions that making the Final Four isn’t special.

I dare ya.

36 years has passed since Jud Heathcote coached Magic and the gang to the top of the heap. It was Jud’s LONE appearance in a Final Four.

Prior to Jud, the only Final Four Michigan State had been involved with was in 1957.

A 16-and-10 Spartan season included another improbable run; Big Ten champs with a 10-and-4 mark.

Jumpin’ Johnny Green solidified himself as one of college basketball’s great players in helping coach Forddy Anderson to MSU’s semi-final appearance. They lost that game to eventual champion North Carolina in triple-overtime.

Green just missed out on the Final Four in 1958.

He’s 81 now. Go tell Jumpin’ Johnny that the Final Four isn’t special.

I “super sloppy” double dare ya!

Here’s a neat idea. How about you call up the oldest living person to attend Northwestern University? Go tell him/her about your thoughts on the Final Four and they better hang right up on you.

Northwestern has never even been to the tournament.

Chris Collins just rolled his eyes.

And so did every other coach at Northwestern before him. A total of 24.

In Evanston, Illinois they would happily take a 16th play-in seed right about now. Final Four is a pipedream.

Yet, Izzo has gone SEVEN times.

As Rob Parker likes to point out, sometimes to Izzo himself, Tom is only 1-and-5 when he gets to the Final Four.

True dat.

Izzo has failed five times in his six previous trips and four in a row.

I can think of, oh… about 320 other schools that would love to fail in the Final Four.

Should national titles be a measure of greatness?


I like winning like the next guy but don’t diminish the accomplishment of grabbing FOUR straight “backs to the wall, survive and advance” pressure cookers.

68 got in and tried. 64 failed.

Four move on.

It happens that way every season.

That is a lot of failure.

One champion.

Awfully lofty standards in a sport with so many combatants.

There’s no doubt that a second national title for Izzo puts him in elite company that can not be erased.

In the history of the game, only 13 men have done it more than once. Three of those dudes are still active.

Duke’s Mike Krzyzweski, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Roy Williams at North Carolina make up that trio.

Six of those 13 did it “pre-Magic/Bird.”

John Wooden’s TEN at UCLA remains the gold standard.

When Izzo hits the court in Indy against Duke on Saturday, his task is twofold. He has to stop Coach K from ringing up number five on his championship hit parade and come one step closer to HIS own second.

He wants it so bad he can taste it.

Multiple championships. It’s Izzo’s fantasy.

He gets a chance to do it with this cast of characters?


This Spartan team has no locks for the NBA and here they are; about to run head first into the Blue Devils for the second time this season.

That November 81-71 Duke win happened in, of all places, Indianapolis.

Jahlil Okafor and Quinn Cook are even better now. Ditto Justice Winslow, Tyus Jones and Matt Jones. In fact, the five starters combined for ALL 66 points in the 66-52 rout over Gonzaga in Houston Sunday.

Krzyzewski has NBA talent all over the joint.

They barely even NEED reserves.

Izzo knows he has his hands full with young Duke in the National Semifinal. The Devils are 33-and-4. This ain’t chopped liver here kids.

This is Coach K and Duke; Krzyzewski’s 12th Final Four.

Izzo loves it.

He wouldn’t rather face anyone else. It’s that spirit he was raised with and continues to exude to this day.

This is why Izzo loves March (now April) and why he digs the college game over the pro version.

He gets to fling it up against Krzyzewski. Bam!

Man, that’s the zenith for Major Tom.

Izzo isn’t even thinking about Wisconsin or Herculean Kentucky in the other semi. He has to manhandle Duke first.

Once more, I will pick against the Spartans; just like I did vs. Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville.

If the Spartans are playing Monday night in front of America then I will happily be wrong for a FIFTH time.

PLUS… if he high steps away Monday night against either the Badgers or the “perfect-season-hopeful” Wildcats?

I might spontaneously combust; implode like a rickety old Las Vegas casino.

Because I just don’t get it.

I don’t know how they got this far.

Seriously. No joke.

If they’re cutting down more nets Monday night, I have only one request.

I call dibs on hugging Lupe.