Friday, March 23, 2012

Thoughts on MSU's 57-44 loss to Louisville, Draymond Green's career

(Box score here)

Kalin Lucas' eyes were starting to water.

The guard's career had just ended after he committed a traveling violation at the end of MSU's first game of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. It was MSU's worst season in more than a decade and the Spartans were bounced in the round of 64 because he had a terrible night. From the playing at the highest level, to coming back from a ruptured Achilles, Lucas had been through a lot. But his brilliant career had ended in a wreck.

The first question in the postgame press conference was asked to Lucas, and he couldn't hold the tears back any longer. He put his head down, so no one could see him. Tom Izzo was tearing up as well. After a few seconds of silence and sniffles, Draymond Green spoke up. 

"I know it had to be rough for him. I mean, I'm just going to answer from my perspective. I feel like he had a great career, and he hasn't had many games where he just couldn't get anything to fall. You know, they did a great job defensively on him. They pretty much keyed on him the whole entire defense, and he did a great job of still getting everybody else involved. He still had five assists and he did some great things for us and got me some open shots. It hurts me. You know, I'm a big fan of my guys reaching milestones, and the loss hurts me, but I think I'm kind of hurting because he came up four points short of 2,000. And for everything he did for this program, you know, I get to come back for another year so I can be sad about the loss later. I think I'm hurting more about him not getting them four points."

When reporters ran out of questions, Green let everyone know how Lucas had told him to keep his head up during his freshman year and helped Green throughout his career.

It was never about him. Over four years, Green always stuck up for his teammates, kept them involved. It was his emphasis on keeping this year's team together that helped them overachieve to heights no one expected. While Green's career also ended in a heartbreaking way, it still wasn't about him. He was the last MSU player to leave the court, congratulating all the Louisville players and high-fiving kids on the way out.

But in the end, it was about him. He finishes his career at MSU with two Final Fours, a Sweet 16, three Big Ten championships, a Big Ten Tournament championship, a Big Ten Player of the Year award and a Big Ten Tournament MVP award, along with being No. 17 all-time in scoring, No. 1 in rebounding, No. 2 in blocks, No. 2 in steals and close to the top 10 in assists at MSU. And have you heard about the leadership?

All season long, you knew there were going to be performances were nothing went right with this team. The Illinois loss was one of those performances. The team just didn't have the talent to win when the collective focus wasn't there. The margin for error was small all season. When Branden Dawson went down, MSU became an above-average rebounding team. It was going to get them eventually. Against Louisville on Thursday, just about everything that could go wrong did, and it resulted in an ugly 57-44 loss in the Sweet 16.

Louisville hit 7-of-15 three-point attempts in the first half after shooting 31 percent from three up to that point. Gorgui Dieng hit the first three of his career, and it was spinning sideways. Once Louisville got consecutive field goals to drop, the full-court press got to MSU, although I counted at least two turnovers on lazy inbound passes. The Spartans lost focus too often and unraveled. MSU turned the ball over nine times in the second half and too often killed any momentum they had in hopes of a comeback. 

In the first half, MSU's defense was spectacular. The big men were playing the pick-and-roll to perfection. Louisville made just one two-point shot in the half. The problem was the three-point shooting. As it has been documented numerous times, three-point defense is about as effective as free-throw defense. MSU trailed by five, but shot just as dreadful. The defense was there. The offense had to get it figured out.

Louisville took the lead midway through the first half and didn't give it up the rest of the way. Keith Appling hit a three-pointer to cut the deficit to two points on the opening possession of the second half, but MSU would get no closer. Appling finished 1-for-6 from the floor with four assists and four turnovers. 

Louisville cooled off from behind the arc, as expected, but Louisville guard Peyton Siva figured things out. The MSU big men came out on the pick-and-roll, but Siva kept dribbling, drawing them out, before darting back inside and passing the ball up for an easy score. Louisville was 11-for-17 on two-point shots in the second half. Siva finished with nine assists and five turnovers. 

After Louisville upped its lead to double-digits, MSU answered with a quick six points, highlighted by a putback dunk by Green that cut the deficit to four and tied him with Greg Kelser for most rebounds in MSU history. But Louisville answered with seven straight points and took an 11-point lead. The Cardinals started to run the clock down and MSU chipped away a little bit. But the Spartan offense never got going. Some more turnovers happened and Louisville started to make its free throws and pull away, but not without some drama. The officials put the wrong Louisville player at the line for free throws. After the first miss, the officials switched the players and let the new player shoot two free throws. It prompted this reaction from Izzo that pretty much summed up the night. 

The Spartans were outrebounded by Louisville 39-36 and the Cardinals had 11 offensive rebounds. Branden Dawson would have been nice for MSU to have. But they got no breaks, and they didn't play with the energy that was deserved of breaks. The 44 points were the fewest points from a No. 1 seed in the shot-clock era and the fewest ever by an MSU team in an NCAA Tournament game. Before a Derrick Nix dunk in the final seconds, the only Spartans with multiple field goals were Green and fellow senior Brandon Wood. Wood came to MSU to play on the big stage and take the big shots. It was a one-year deal, but Wood made the most of his opportunities down the stretch this season.

When Green checked out of the game, it marked the end of a era. He was overweight when he came to MSU, but worked himself into shape so Izzo had to play him. He wasn't a huge part of the 2009 run to the national championship game, but he certainly was in 2010. He was only a sophomore, but he was the leader on that team. After a home loss to Ohio State, Green suggested a team sleepover at Breslin Center. The Spartans then won at No. 3 Purdue and won their final two games to earn a share of their second straight Big Ten championship. When Lucas went down in the NCAA Tournament second round with the Achilles injury, Green told Lucas the team had his back. The Spartans reached their second straight Final Four.

Then there was the drama of last season. Before the year began, Green proclaimed that anything short of a national championship would be a failure. After all, Green had never not made the Final Four. But players were kicked off before and during the season, while other players weren't fully committed to the team. The season was a disaster by MSU standards, but one thing was clear: Green was becoming one of the best players in the Big Ten, and he was going to make sure something like the 2010-11 season didn't happen again. Green had a triple-double in the NCAA Tournament game to UCLA, but he was upset about the loss, and more upset Lucas didn't reach 2,000 points. 

No one knew what to expect in 2011-12. Six newcomers came into the program. MSU started the season unranked and some thought the Spartans could miss their first NCAA Tournament since 1997. But Green wasn't going to let it happen. He was obviously the focal point of MSU's gameplan, but he knew he couldn't do it alone. He kept everyone involved, on and off the court. 

This was the first time a Tom Izzo team earned a No. 1 seed and didn't reach the Final Four. Did they deserve the No. 1 seed? Absolutely. Did they overachieve? Absolutely. This was far from the most-talented team Izzo has had, but it might have been the most unified. There was just no answer for the havoc that Louisville caused Friday night. But a Sweet 16 loss doesn't take away from one of the most memorable seasons in the Izzo era. From Green's accolades, to Austin Thornton's emergence, to Adreian Payne's and Nix's comeback seasons, the Spartans accomplished so much more than anyone could have imagined. 

Green changed the direction of the MSU program, because he put it ahead of everything else. So many college programs have lulls. Heck, North Carolina missed the tournament two years ago. It appeared MSU might finally suffer that lull and fall down a notch among the nation's elite. But it didn't, because of what Izzo has called a once-in-a-lifetime type of player. Izzo's been lucky enough to have two of them. Mateen Cleaves and Magic Johnson have a national title. Green doesn't. But Cleaves and Johnson didn't have to carry a team without NBA-ready talent and accomplish so much like Green did this season.

Green's career started with the some of the highest moments in program history, and he built the bridge so more of those moments will come again. His number will be in the Breslin rafters one day. He was the perfect Spartan.

Now, he can take his seat at the MSU basketball legends table.

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