PHOENIX – Draymond Green was worried. All week, the energy that had suffused Michigan State’s basketball team throughout its surprising run to the Big Ten championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament went missing. Mediocre practices. Dead film sessions. A grim feeling that the Spartans’ Sweet 16 game against Louisville might be its last of the season.
“I think everybody just knew,” Green said. “We had a feeling.”
Fight though they did, Green’s prophesy – and the Spartans’ fatigue – proved true. Louisville overcame an ugly first half to run away from Michigan State in a 57-44 West Regional semifinal victory during which the Cardinal outrebounded, outfoxed and outclassed a team rarely beaten in any of those facets and almost never in all three.
“I definitely had a sense,” said Green, a likely first-team All-American who led a Spartans team expected to suffer through a down season. “Nobody’s crazy. We know the energy level this team has had, and … our energy level just wasn’t there.”
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Green wasn't blaming any one person. Not his teammates who shot 14-of-49. Not himself, with six of the Spartans’ 15 turnovers. Not coach Tom Izzo, who added to the misery by getting outcoached by Rick Pitino. Michigan State had no answer for Louisville’s 2-3 zone, helmed by Gorgui Dieng playing goalkeeper with seven blocks, nor did Izzo adjust accordingly when the Cardinals unleashed a press designed, in Pitino’s words, “to get to the legs.”
As with a boxer, once they went, Michigan State’s will followed.
If Green sounded like a beaten man, it’s because he was. More than perhaps any coach in college basketball, Izzo emphasizes mental fortitude over talent. Sure, because he has won a national championship and made six Final Fours at Michigan State, he can wrangle McDonald’s All-Americans. He just doesn’t need them.
To compensate, Izzo pushes his players, rides them, implores them that they have to be stronger, tougher, better. He is widely recognized as the godfather of the War Drill, a gruesome rebounding exercise that has bloodied many a face. Other coaches have stolen from him the use of a plastic bubble to cover the rim, force every shot to carom away and necessitate a rebound.
Izzo’s style drives teams to overachieve, sometimes to the point of greatness. It also can have the opposite effect. All season long, the Spartans had survived and advanced, survived and advanced. Playing hand-to-mouth basketball will wear out even the most prepared kids.
The signs were there. MSU struggled against Saint Louis in its previous game. Ohio State outrebounded the Spartans 43-30 in the Big Ten championship game, and in three of its final four regular-season games, Michigan State lost on the boards as well.
As Thursday’s game unfolded, Izzo found himself lamenting another performance in which Michigan State found itself overwhelmed. He sat stationary, left hand cupping his chin, right hand limp on his side. He stood up to give Green a hug as he exited in a Michigan State uniform for the final time, then once more to strike the pose of a beaten coach: hands in pockets, with no need to direct traffic, call a play, implore his troops. Izzo stared at nothing.
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Pitino out-Izzo’d Izzo. Point guard Peyton Siva, whose superlative second half drove Louisville’s offense, dribbled out the clock, and the Cardinals descended on the court to celebrate. A few hours later, they learned they’d face Florida for a Final Four spot, a seeming impossibility weeks earlier when their season looked lost.
Michigan State’s died amid a flurry of missed shots and opportunities, a cascade of second-guessing and tears. Izzo blamed himself for bringing the Spartans here Monday, which meant three days of doing next to nothing.
He may have had a point. Wednesday, center Derrick Nix leaned back in his chair in Michigan State’s locker room. “This is just boring, man,” he said. “We've been here too long. I just want to play.”
When they did, it wasn’t the Michigan State team that bulled through a tough Big Ten.
“It could’ve been we came out too early,” center Adreian Payne said. “It could’ve been we had a lot of practices. It could’ve been we had a lot of walk-throughs. It could’ve been we was tired of going through that stuff, waiting for the game to hurry up and get here.
“Mentally, physically, we always worn out. Even ‘Day Day’ [Green]. It’s been a long year for him to lead the team. Knowing he’s too tired, and every day you’ve got to do more than the next player on the team. People’s bodies get worn out.”
“It just felt like we deflated,” Green said. “It wasn’t there.”
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Never was that more evident than when Michigan State trailed 35-24 with 12:57 left. Izzo sensed his team needed a run. He called a timeout. Coming out of it, senior co-captain Austin Thornton tried to inbound the ball from the baseline into the backcourt, where Green stood.
“And the ball just kind of slipped,” Thornton said.
The ball went out of bounds before Green could paw it, another turnover on a night of them. It wasn’t the only thing that had slipped, either. Gone was Michigan State’s season, a casualty of all that had come before it. Outrebounded, outfoxed, outclassed, outcoached.
Outdone. And they knew it before it happened.
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