EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Izzo’s 2005 Michigan State team was presumed dead before its NCAA tournament started, a No. 5 seed with a late-game mental block, picked by many to relent immediately at the hands of No. 12 seed Old Dominion.
A Final Four? Come on.
The 2009 Spartans entered as a No. 2 seed in the Midwest, which was nice except that MSU was placed in the same region as No. 1 overall seed Louisville — and would have to beat the Cards in Indianapolis, a drive of less than 2 hours from Rick Pitino’s lair. Oh, and that tournament included a North Carolina team considered the game’s best in several years.
A year later, Izzo’s team was a mess entering the tournament, a No. 5 seed that had just been upset by Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, with one talented guard (Chris Allen) suspended for that game and another (Durrell Summers) benched for much of it. In case the Spartans emerged from far-away Spokane, Wash., with two wins, they’d almost certainly be dispatched by No. 1 overall seed Kansas.
These were the past three Izzo teams to reach the Final Four, all exceeding expectations in the process. His first three came in 1999-2001, all No. 1 seeds with lofty hopes from the start, the 2000 team winning it all.
In the other years since, MSU has been seeded 10, 7, 7, 6, 9, 5 and 10 — and last season No. 1. But last season’s team did not have a No. 1 seed roster after Branden Dawson blew out his knee in the regular-season finale, and that tournament included another clear favorite and eventual champ in Kentucky.
The point of all these recollections and numbers is to back up this statement: This is Michigan State’s best chance at a national championship entering an NCAA tournament since 2001.
Even if Izzo isn’t sure about that statement.
“Boy, I don’t know how I can look at the teams that I see in our bracket alone and feel you have a good chance,” Izzo said when posed with it. “But I’m not sure I felt that way when we did play Kansas and Louisville (beating both in 2009). I’m not sure (I did) when we played Duke and Kentucky (beating both in 2005).
“What I want to do is win this weekend. If we win this weekend, then I think we have just as good a chance as anybody, even though the competition gets tougher — because we’ve been through it, we’ve been there, we know what we’re doing as a staff. I think it becomes a coin flip and it becomes matchups.”
First, the Midwest Regional No. 3 seed Spartans (25-8) must avoid an upset Thursday at the Palace against No. 14 seed Valparaiso (26-7). It’s an upset Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated has predicted, citing the Crusaders’ offensive skill and experience.
Others such as ESPN’s Jay Williams see the Spartans advancing to the Final Four, even though No. 2 seed Duke and Louisville — the No. 1 overall seed again — could await MSU in Indy. Washington Post columnist Mike Wise picks MSU to win the whole thing.
The Spartans are thinking along the same lines, but they also recognize how unpredictable this season has been, for them and the sport at large. Just as there’s no overwhelming favorite in this tournament, there seem to be more teams vulnerable to early upsets.
“We think we’ve got a championship team,” senior center Derrick Nix said, “but this year’s been crazy. Teams have been getting beat left and right.”
And MSU has looked great at times, pedestrian at others. The Spartans beat No. 1 seed Kansas in November in Atlanta, site of the Final Four. They hammered Michigan, beat Ohio State, nearly won at Indiana despite foul trouble from point guard Keith Appling.
They enter the tournament having lost four of seven games and did not play their best in last weekend’s Big Ten tournament in Chicago. Dawson’s legs and freshman Gary Harris’ shoulders are concerns.
But the bracket could open up, as it did in 2010 when Northern Iowa stunned Kansas and MSU found itself with a great chance to win it all in Indy despite losing Kalin Lucas to a torn Achilles tendon. And on paper, these Spartans have the talent and many of the statistical indicators.
A CBSSports.com study of the past 12 national champs shows MSU has seven of the eight defining traits, including a top-three seed, a coach with past tourney success and a strong schedule — everything but an average of 73 points a game (MSU is at 68.2).
On the brackets that will be filled out by millions this week, there’s more reason to write MSU into the final spot than before any of the previous 11 tournaments. But then, anyone who has watched the Spartans in that time knows to be suspicious of pretournament expectations.
“You could say we have just as good a chance as anybody, and I believe you,” Izzo said, “yet there’s more land mines, because everybody is pretty similar.”