AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Not so long ago, Michigan State used to streak to Final Fours nearly every year behind a seemingly endless array of Mateen Cleaves fast breaks and Jason Richardson alley-oops.
There were four Final Fours, an Elite Eight and the 2000 NCAA title in seven mostly thrilling seasons. Then came the last two seasons, where there was no one to alley it, which made sense since there was no one to oop it to.
The Spartans never collapsed during those years, pounding their way to 45 combined victories and a couple of brief NCAA appearances, because coach Tom Izzo will never allow his teams to forget how to defend or rebound.
But every victory felt like a tractor pull, the team posted consecutive 8-8 Big Ten records and the Spartans' offense would be most politely described as having a good personality.
"We did have to grind it out," Izzo said.
It was the first official practice this fall, when Izzo put his new team, featuring its new return to old speed and athletic ability, on the floor that a weight seemed to lift slightly off his shoulders, according to his assistants. Izzo wasn't going to stop coaching every dribble, but once again, he had the kind of tools he covets, the kind of players he wins championships with.
Michigan State, everyone could see, was back.
Saturday's 78-72 victory over No. 4 Texas wasn't just a show of strength for the ninth-ranked Spartans; it was a return to their version of Showtime.
Izzo has a freshman point guard named Kalin Lucas who may not get the hype of his classmates around the country (O.J. Mayo, Derrick Rose or Eric Gordon) but by the end of the season that might not matter.
Lucas is beyond fast. He goes warp speed up and down the court, the kind of breathtaking point guard that Michigan State is famous for – this is Magic Johnson's school, after all.
While Lucas doesn't start, his simple presence has changed everything, starting with tempo. Facing the Longhorns' great D.J. Augustin – no slow poke himself – Lucas went toe to toe and baseline to baseline.
He had 18 points, six assists, six rebounds and better than anything brought back the return of the fast break, the open layup and even the big dunk, each of which kept the sellout crowd here at the Palace of Auburn Hills in a frenzy.
"And I'm telling you, he's still got another gear," Izzo smiled. "He's the quickest player I've ever recruited."
"Recruited" is the operative word. Some misses, some mistakes and some bad luck (and injuries) had depleted State the past few years. They were long on defenders and rebounders but little else. Last season, the Spartans' game plan was defend, rebound and pray Drew Neitzel didn't miss.
Neitzel, who can now concentrate on mostly shooting and not doing everything, had just 12 points against Texas. A year ago that would have meant a blowout loss.
But Izzo and his assistants (Mark Montgomery and Dwayne Stephens) reloaded with recruits, the kind of strong, fast athletes they used to rotate through. They got Raymar Morgan out of Ohio, Marquis Gray from Flint, Mich., and this freshman class of Lucas and Durrell Summers from the Detroit area and Chris Allen (injured now) of Georgia.
"We can go big, we can go small, we're not one dimensional," Izzo said.
Mostly they can go fast.
"We didn't have the point that pushed it like we do," Izzo said. "I think that is why they're capable of growing into a very, very good offensive team."
It is worth repeating, when Izzo's teams are very good offensively, they play on the final weekend of the NCAA tournament. Because they are always good defensively. At the very least, this team has as many pieces as anyone in the country.
At 11-1, the Spartans have blasted through a tricky non-conference slate (their only loss to UCLA on a neutral court) and with the Big Ten featuring just one other nationally ranked team (No. 13 Indiana), a lot of the heavy lifting is done.
The ultimate goal is a No. 1 seed in the Midwest, which would put them at Ford Field in Detroit, where a massive crowd would supply a massive advantage.
"A lot of season to play," Izzo reminded.
True enough, but there was a look on Izzo's face that said talking about seeding in December was a pleasant return to the old days.
After a couple of years of willing every last drop of potential out of his team, after winning ugly because it was the only way, after fighting just to get into the tournament, watching his guys play fun again was, indeed, fun again.
"It's going to be a Merry Christmas," Izzo laughed.
Not to mention March.
- Michigan State
- Tom Izzo