Adversity helps shape Michigan State’s late-season flourish, Sweet 16 berth

Tribune Content Agency

NEW YORK — It was inside a minute to play Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, as Michigan State headed to the timeout huddle holding an eight-point lead over Marquette.

A victory seemed nearly certain for the Spartans, a berth in the Sweet 16 about locked up after not making it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament the previous two years.

But to be in the Michigan State huddle, it easily could have been mistaken for something far more stressful.

“It was fun to watch the players in the huddle,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said that day. “When we were about eight up with (less than) a minute left they started saying, ‘Don’t double the ball; if they drive it, don’t help in there and give open threes.’ They, too, learned from the Iowa mistake.”

The Iowa mistake, of course, was watching an 11-point lead disappear in 55 seconds, leading to an overtime loss that might have derailed a season for some teams.

But for this Michigan State team, it was simply another lesson in a long season of becoming exactly who they are heading into Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup with No. 3 Kansas State at Madison Square Garden.

“Been there, done that,” Izzo said.

He was talking about the Iowa collapse, but he might as well have been describing the entire season. In fact, the Hall of Fame coach could start before the season when it comes to the experiences that helped create this team.

It was in September that sophomore guard Jaden Akins underwent foot surgery, something that forced him to miss four games and took the bulk of the season to overcome. Not long after was a similar injury to Malik Hall, costing the senior 11 games and still affecting him to the point he takes his shoe off every time he checks out of the game and uses a massager on his foot.

There was the tough travel and even tougher schedule in November — Gonzaga, Kentucky, Alabama all on the docket — followed by deflating losses at Notre Dame and home against Northwestern.

The ship was starting to right itself as the calendar turned to a new year but then came an 0-for-7 night from 3-point range for a loss at Illinois followed by the crushing one-point loss at home to Purdue. The grind of the Big Ten season was in full effect at that point, the Spartans trying to find a rhythm with Akins and Hall working their way back.

Then came Feb. 13 when the Michigan State campus was rocked by tragedy, a campus shooting that took the lives of three students and injured five more. The Spartans missed a game then returned to action that Saturday at Michigan, an entire community looking to the team for a release. They lost that night, they started to find something, the offense coming together and momentum being built.

A win at home over Indiana followed, but then came Iowa. Michigan State led by 13 with just more than two minutes to play before the Hawkeyes hit a flurry of 3-pointers and the Spartans couldn’t hold back the oncoming freight train of defeat.

Instead of collapse, though, Michigan State responded with a big win at Nebraska then beat Ohio State to close the regular season. A loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament proved to be a minor speedbump as the Spartans beat Southern Cal and Marquette to reach the Sweet 16 a team few are counting out considering who is running the show.

But really, the Spartans’ run is more about who they are and what they’ve endured.

“If you don’t go through some adversity, if you don’t go through some problems, first of all, you don’t enjoy the good times as much,” Izzo said. “But second of all, you’re not prepared. I mean, within a game, we’re up 15 or something and then we’re down five. Those things are going to happen as they happen in life. If you’ve never been prepared for that, how do you handle it?

“You better learn from the positives and the negatives of the journey and figure out how to deal with them and how to excel and I think this team has done a damn good job of that.”

As much as the matchups with the Wildcats matter, as much as the Spartans will need to find a way to slow the dynamic duo of guard Markquis Nowell and forward Keyontae Johnson, they’ll need to lean the things that put them in this position.

“The way I look at it, there’s not wins or losses, there’s wins and then there are learning experiences,” senior forward Joey Hauser said. “They are chances to get better. We were up and down. We had different guys that had to step up and play bigger roles, which helps you later down the road.

“So, I just think everything we’ve kind of gone through, it prepares you for this moment, especially the tough opponents we played earlier in the year.”

Few are as tough as Kansas State. Not much was expected of the Wildcats this season and first-year coach Jerome Tang. In fact, they were picked to finish last in the Big 12 only to win 11 games and tie for third with Baylor behind Kansas and Texas.

Along the way, Kansas State has wins over those conference heavyweights and earned a 3-seed and are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018. The Wildcats have been an interesting story, as well. From the fact Tang is in his first year to the heavy amount of transfers on the roster, they’ve managed to prove plenty of folks wrong.

Now, their focus is matching Michigan State’s resolve.

“One of the things that’s super impressive is how quickly they get the ball out of the net and up the floor after the other team scores,” Tang said of Michigan State. “So transition — we call it the book ends. The moment they touch the ball, then the end of it and how great they rebound. Those two things we have to be prepared for, stopping them in transition, getting back, building a wall, making a play in the half court. And then at the end when they take a shot, being able to corral the ball, limit their second-chance opportunities.

“Then they just play with Coach Izzo’s toughness, that gritty, toughness, fights you for every inch on the court, on every dribble and every pass. They’ve got really good players that do those things. So that makes it really hard.”

Those attributes don’t just show up. Sure, Izzo preaches grittiness, toughness, cohesiveness. But it takes something to create and for the Spartans it’s taken all they’ve gone through.

And now that Michigan State is two wins from a Final Four, it’s where it always believed it would be.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Hall said. “At the beginning of the year everybody thought this is who we were. It’s not something I feel like is new to us. We went through our trials and tribulations, obviously. But I feel like we always knew we were this level of team, so it’s just kind of staying with our confidence and staying with who we are and knowing who we are. It’s probably the most important thing.”

It surely has been to this point. How much further that takes them remains to be seen.