Michigan State, regardless of seeding, always seems to go on a run in the NCAA Tournament – and this year is no exception. The No. 7 Spartans beat No. 2 Virginia, 60-54, in the Round of 32 on Sunday, knocking the Cavaliers out of the tournament for the second straight season.
Michigan State beat Virginia in the Sweet 16 last year.
“Let me tell you: They are really good,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “But in fairness to them – and to take a little bit off us – (Justin) Anderson was a big loss. When I watched them in January, they were a No. 1 seed and he was not a good player, (but) a great player. We’ve had it happen when a couple of our guys (have missed time) over the years.”
Anderson suffered a broken finger this year and later underwent an emergency appendectomy.
“When you’re a shooter and you got to do all these things, it’s hard to come back after missing that much time, get your timing back and all that,” Izzo said. “I felt for Tony and for Anderson because he seemed like a great, tough kid. A linebacker on hardwood – that’s what I call him.”
Michigan State limited Virginia to 29.8 percent shooting from the floor, including 2-of-17 (11.8 percent) from three-point range.
“Defense does win championships,” Izzo said, “and trust me – Virginia’s got the best. We’ve become a pretty good team defense. Individually we’re not as good as last year’s team. We had some great defenders in (Gary) Harris and (Keith) Appling and (Adreian)Payne. They could block shots. They could do things. This year, we don’t have that lockdown defender, but we’ve become a better team, (a better) defensive team. Yesterday, we were as good as we can be. But Anderson not being the same – and Brogdon did not have as good a game – it just wasn’t a good game for them.”
Of course, Sparty had a lot to do with that. This is a team that lost to Duke, lost to Kansas, lost to Notre Dame, lost to Maryland twice, lost to Wisconsin twice, and even lost to Illinois and Minnesota at home. This did not look like a vintage Spartans team at all.
And yet, here they are, back in the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in eight years.
“For the most part, we’ve been pretty good defensively,” Izzo said. “We’ve been a decent rebounding team – although this weekend, Virginia killed us on the boards. But you’re right. We’re not a vintage (Michigan State team). We lost our best freshman at the beginning of the year, and we lost a kid at the end of the summer that we had to move on. Those were two big losses for us.
“So we’re not as talented of a team,” Izzo continued, “but I give a lot of credit to our former players. They kind of hold us to a standard. They have expectations. Fans and media always do that. You got to live with that. But when former players do it, those guys come back, call back. I think that has helped this team grow. We’re a terrible free-throw shooting team, and it still worries me that that’s going to cost us. But we’ve been that way all year.”
Michigan State shot 20-of-33 (60.6 percent) from the foul line Sunday.
So, no, this is not a vintage Spartans team.
“But I will say this,” Izzo said. “We might be the closest thing where they know they have to rely on each other because we’re not individually as talented. And that has made us that ultimate four letter word – team – beyond belief.”
Michigan State (25-11) faces No. 3 Oklahoma (24-10) this Friday at 10:07 p.m. ET.
Izzo was asked what he knew about the Sooners.
“I actually know quite a bit,” Izzo said. “Lon Kruger was in the Big Ten. He was at Illinois. We became friends there. In fact, when I turned down that job in Atlanta, I helped him get it. And so, I’ve watched his career. When you can do something at four or five schools like he’s done, that means he’s got a hell of a system because he can go in and rebuild and rebuild and have different players in different conferences. He’s got a very good system. We played them last year with a much better team, and it was a dogfight out in Brooklyn. So we know a little bit about them. But we’re going to know a lot more in the next 48 hours, I can promise you that.”