NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Recap - Michigan State vs Northern Iowa
(5) Michigan State 59, (9) Northern Iowa 52
Death. Taxes. Politicians being greedy. The sun rising in the east.
Tom Izzo winning in March.
Yes, there are several aspects of life that just never change, several elements of the world around us that are fixed in place, never to be altered as long as we walk the earth.
One of those things, as you can tell, applies to the world of college basketball, because once again - in the cauldron of tournament pressure - a sport's foremost bench boss worked his customary magic and pulled another Elite Eight out of his hat for the Michigan State Spartans.
Yes, this was some kind of act Mr. Izzo staged at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Friday night. It will be very difficult to convince the college basketball cognoscenti that these Spartans are an Elite Eight team. Yet, here they are.
Kalin Lucas - the star and heartbeat of this club and the main actor on last year's national runner-up - tore his achilles tendon and is out for the rest of the tournament. Chris Allen has a bad foot and was not viewed to be in very good shape going forward after Michigan State's second-round win over Maryland last Sunday. Delvon Roe's surgically-repaired knee has been acting up, and he took a shot to that knee early in this game against the Northern Iowa Panthers. Remember, too, that this is the same team that has been struggling with leadership, focus, and seemingly every kind of issue you can come up with. Lucas himself has endured multiple lectures from Izzo over the course of the season and has not performed at the level his coaching staff has expected.
But lookee here: When the second half of March arrives and Michigan State enters this wondrous place called Bracketville, look what crops up. The Spartans unerringly find their footing under the instruction of Izzo, college basketball's preeminent postseason Patton, the genius general who always knows how to lead men while drawing up the best plays this side of John Wooden.
Michigan State was down 29-22 at the half tonight, and looked completely out of sorts as the Spartans tried to crack Northern Iowa's stout defense. Sparty finished the half just 7 of 22 from the floor. Northern Iowa controlled the pace, controlled the backboards, and controlled Michigan State on the defensive end. Coach Ben Jacobson's bunch looked to have this game exactly where they wanted it, with a slow pace and a lack of above-the-rim action from an athletic MSU squad.
That changed at the start of the second half.
Michigan State came out a different team. When the Spartans ran their sets, they got open shots and they made them. Durrell Summers hit a few clutch jumpers from the wing, and that small but meaningful fact made Northern Iowa extend its defense just enough to the point that the Panthers left spaces near the lane open for MSU's post people. The Spartans' made jumpers early in the second half distorted the shape of UNI's defense, and as a result, Izzo finally found a way to exploit the plucky and persistent Panthers.
Michigan State started getting the ball inside, usually by having a big man stand near the left elbow while another big man came off a backscreen near the bucket. If the man on the backscreen is covered, the man near the elbow can either shoot or drive to the basket. However, because of MSU's jump-shooting prowess early in the second half, Northern Iowa was more concerned with the Spartans' guards. The backscreen-oriented action in Izzo's halfcourt sets usually produced an open cutter coming off the screen, and MSU gained multiple layups, dunks and free throws as a result of this one basic setup.
After Durrell Summers caught an alley-oop from Korie Lucious, the Spartans had a 38-34 lead with 14:47 left. Northern Iowa wasn't going to go away, however, as the Panthers were able to settle down on the defensive end an even regain the lead. As so many pundits predicted, this turned into a grind-it-out affair down the stretch, and the Spartans - to the surprise of some, but not those who know Tom Izzo - were able to win that battle.
Michigan State went nearly five minutes without a field goal before a tough turnaround in the lane from Raymar Morgan and a nasty, spin-and-fadeaway flourish from Lucious - on a play reminiscent of what Kalin Lucas has done for Sparty over the years - put the Spartans up 55-51 with less than two minutes left.
Northern Iowa had no answer. The Missouri Valley Conference champions didn't hit a shot from the floor for the last 10:22 of this game. While the sons of Cedar Falls, Iowa, were able to hang tough with Michigan State, it was the Spartans' ability to make plays down the stretch that was the difference.
Having said that, this was a great run for the Panthers. They've put their school on the map, and after retaining Ben Jacobson for 10 years, things are really looking up for this program.
Then again, when you want to talk about programs where things are looking up, Michigan State is just about the best thing going in all of college basketball. The Spartans are now one win away from their sixth Final Four in the past 12 years.
Just who does Tom Izzo think he is? Mike Krzyzewski?
Michigan State, despite being a No. 5 seed, will wear its home whites on Sunday afternoon in St. Louis. That's because the Spartans will be playing sixth-seeded Tennessee, conqueror of second-seeded Ohio State in Friday's other Midwest Regional semifinal. If you had Tennessee and Michigan State as your Midwest Regional final before the tournament began, you must have had connections to each of these schools and/or the states in which they're located. Tennessee had never before made the Elite Eight, while Michigan State - following a bad loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament - looked nothing like the team that powered its way to the national championship game last season. The coaching matchup between Izzo and Tennessee's Bruce Pearl will, by itself, be worth the price of admission.