Monday, March 26, 2012

Thoughts on MSU basketball's 2011-12 season and looking ahead

It started with President Obama on the sideline and ended with Muhammed Ali watching from the stands.

In between, the MSU men's basketball team turned in one of the most improbable seasons in a long time. It ended with a thud, but it was full of surprises and memories.

We tend to look at any MSU season that didn't finish in the Final Four and consider it a failure (That's what Drew Sharp did before later changing his column). Sure, when a No. 1 seed doesn't reach the Final Four, it should be labeled a disappointment. But this was an MSU team that overachieved all season, and when Branden Dawson went down, the margin for error was extremely thin. It got them against Louisville.

But who saw it getting that far? Two championships and a Sweet 16, not bad for a team that began the season unranked.

It actually started in the offseason. Garrick Sherman transferred shortly after the 2010-11 season ended, joining Korie Lucious, who had been kicked off earlier that year. Then Delvon Roe announced his retirement in the summer. The Spartans were going to be shorthanded. Freshmen were going to be relied upon. The goal wasn't a Final Four. It wasn't even a Big Ten championship. It was play as well as you can and get better as the season goes on. No one knew what to expect.

We were going to find out about these guys right off the bat. Off to San Diego and the aircraft carrier. What was this? The rebounding, the effort, things we hadn't seen from an MSU team in a while. All it took was one half for people to say "This is Michigan State basketball." North Carolina pulled away in the second half, but the Spartans fought to the end. UNC just had too much talent. Duke took a huge lead against MSU at Madison Square Garden in the next game, but the Spartans again didn't quit, and cut it close by the end.

That was where this team was going to fall short. As hard as they tried, there just wasn't enough experience and skill to contend for a championship.

Then they won against Florida State and at Gonzaga. They kept winning. And winning. It took everything possible to win at Wisconsin for the first time since 2001. Then MSU handed Indiana its first loss of the season. Before we knew it, the Spartans were ranked No. 6 in the country. Program restored. That didn't take long.

But then came the losses at Northwestern and Michigan, and we remembered Big Ten play isn't like the nonconference season. Ohio State was going to run away with the conference like we thought. It was a race for second place. After solid home wins against Purdue and Minnesota (Izzo's 400th career win), the season was nearly derailed at Illinois. Draymond Green battled foul trouble, including a technical, and then injured his knee. Still, the Spartans had a chance. But a final attempt by Keith Appling didn't fall, and MSU lost in ugly fashion, 42-41. MSU shot 23 percent from the floor. The margin for error was small for this team. We'd seen what could happen when everything was hitting on all cylinders. Now we'd seen the other side of what was possible.

Up next was a home game against U-M. Green was going to be OK, but the Wolverines were going for their fourth straight win against MSU. So much on the line. In his final game against the school he almost committed to as a high schooler, Green had 16 rebounds — the same amount as the entire U-M team — as MSU won 64-54. The train was back on track.

After a home win against Penn State, the Spartans put it all together and won at Ohio State, and all of a sudden a Big Ten championship was more than a dream, it was something this team could reach. MSU rattled off four more wins in a row and after Wisconsin won at Ohio State, the Spartans clinched a share of the most improbable Big Ten championship under Izzo. If they could win one of their final two games, they'd earn an outright title. But they were going to be two of MSU's toughest games of the season.

First up: Indiana. Just as the Hoosiers had done to most opponents at home, Indiana used a blitzkrieg of offense to take a 41-27 lead at halftime. Only Green showed up on offense. He finished with 29 points and MSU finished with 55 in a 15-point loss. Again, the offensive problems showed up. Next up: Ohio State. No way Green was going to let his Senior Day get ruined. MSU jumped out to a 24-9 run and the party was on. But then Dawson went down and William Buford went off. Buford finished with 25 points, the final two coming on a jump shot with a second left to win the game and force a three-way tie for the Big Ten crown. Then the word came out: torn ACL for Dawson. His season was over. What about MSU's?

I wrote then that I thought some players would step up. I picked MSU to win the Big Ten Tournament and said Final Four hopes weren't dashed, just damaged. A season that had so much promise for a big run in March now had a lot of question marks.

Off to Indianapolis. MSU blew past Iowa for the second time, then downed Wisconsin for the third time. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne had big games, and Brandon Wood was finding a rhythm. The Spartans and Buckeyes played the best basketball game I've ever seen in person in the tournament championship. Green struggled and left with a head injury, but Wood stepped up. He came to MSU to play on the big stage, and he finished with a season-high 21 as MSU took home its first Big Ten Tournament championship since 2000. Who needed Dawson? Well, the Buckeyes outrebounded MSU 43-30. The Spartans clearly were vulnerable.

A successful regular season was capped off with the program's first No. 1 seed since 2001. As we've seen, seeding means nothing (one No. 1 seed made the Final Four this year), but Izzo knows they're good for a program's reputation. In the NCAA Tournament Round of 64, LIU-Brooklyn talked a big game, while Green had one. The Blackbirds stuck around for a while, but Green's 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists led MSU to an 89-67 win.  It was Green's second triple-double in an NCAA Tournament game, joining Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only players to record multiple triple-doubles in the tournament.

A hard-fought game against Saint Louis went in MSU's favor after Keith Appling found some confidence in his jump-shot. But the total rebounds were close, and SLU had eight on the offensive end. MSU clearly wasn't the same rebounding team without Dawson. It was going to catch up with them, and it finally did as the season ended with a thud in a 57-44 loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals had a 39-36 edge on the glass and had 11 offensive rebounds.

Obviously rebounding wasn't the only issue, but MSU wasn't the same team without its rebounding advantage. It did what it did post-Dawson because of unreal shooting — MSU made at least 48 percent of its shots in each of the five games before Louisville. As had been the case all season, MSU was capable of laying an egg on offense. A combination of an off night on offense and strong pressure defense from Louisville resulted in one of the worst offensive performances ever for a No. 1 seed.

It was a disaster of an ending, but when you look at where it began, the season was far from a failure or a disaster. One year after the most shockingly bad season in the Izzo era, this was the most improbable successful season. Green and Izzo took the top player and coach awards in the Big Ten, and Green was a national player of the year candidate. He also leaves MSU at No. 1 in rebounds, No. 2 in steals, No. 2 in blocks, No. 17 in scoring and close to the top-10 in assists.

Elsewhere on the roster, Derrick Nix had one of the biggest improvement seasons I've seen, Adreian Payne became a consistent scoring option on offense, Austin Thornton finally got his shot and made the most of it and the three true freshmen all had solid seasons. (Final stats here). So MSU loses Green, Thornton and Wood but brings in one of the school's best recruiting classes.

I'm not sure what MSU's starting lineup will be next season, but that's because there are so many possibilities at several positions. Izzo is going to enjoy all the versatility he'll have. Appling will be able to play more two-guard, but still should see a lot of time at the point. Travis Trice should be healthy again and could take a major step forward. His future running the point looks really good. Incoming freshman Denzel Valentine comes in with a lot of hype for his passing skills, while his defense and shooting should need some work. Brandan Kearney has shown a lot of skill on the defensive end.

Dawson will miss out on an offseason, but could be ready by the season-opener. Before going down, he had already established himself as one of the best offense rebounders in the Big Ten. Incoming sharpshooter Gary Harris is tall enough to split time between shooting guard and small forward, and his defense reportedly is very solid. We know Izzo loves that. Russell Byrd also should take a big step forward if he stays healthy this summer.

Down low, Nix will be the only senior, but may not be a starter. Adreian Payne will probably be the starting center, but I think we'll finally see lineups with both Payne and Nix out there. When watching UNC's John Henson today, I saw what Payne could be. UNC played both 6-foot-11 Henson and 7-foot Tyler Zeller at the same time this season. Payne has the athleticism and jump-shot, he just needs to get quicker with his reads and feet on defense, along with his conditioning (which could be hard because of small lungs). Incoming big man Matt Costello is a fierce rebounder and could start at power forward. Alex Gauna also has a lot of offensive skill and should contribute more.

This team is going to be deep. Really deep. And really versatile. The only issue could be that eight contributors will be freshmen or sophomores. They're young. Can Nix be the leader as the only senior? What if he doesn't start? Can Appling take the next step as a leader? Of course there are questions, but on paper, the immediate future for the MSU program is very, very bright.

As for the rest of the Big Ten, Indiana could be a top-5 team in the preseason, assuming Cody Zeller comes back. Michigan could be in the top-10 if Trey Burke comes back. Minnesota should contend if Trevor Mbakwe decides to come back. Ohio State should still be pretty good, and Wisconsin will be there because Wisconsin is always there. The conference won't be as deep, but the top of the conference should be as good as it has ever been. I see MSU somewhere in the 2-4 range, depending on some things, but again competing for a Big Ten crown.

The 2011-12 season was a memorable year with moments that will never be forgotten among Spartan fans. But now it's time for the annual recycle. Some names leave, new ones come in. Green's will be legendary (not just because it's a school color!). His name and number will be in the Breslin Center rafters one day. But now, the focus turns to the next season. As they say, on to the next one.

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