Spartans leave all on the court in loss to Kansas, eager to look at bright future
TULSA, Okla. — The morale was low in the Spartans’ locker room after a crushing 90-70 loss to Kansas Sunday to end their season.
The No. 9-seeded Spartans came close to upsetting the No. 1 Jayhawks — MSU stayed at the coattails of Kansas for nearly 30 minutes and trailed by five with 6:43 to play. But Kansas throttled the Spartans until the end, finishing the game on a 19-3 run and holding MSU scoreless for the last 2:36 of regulation.
The season’s end was bittersweet for the Spartans. On one side, the year plagued by the injuries of their veterans and hindered the team’s true potential. On the other side, though, it was dominated by the inconsistencies of a freshmen-laden team and was transformed into a year of challenges and adversity.
Strangely, a year unlike any other for head coach Tom Izzo paid its dividends despite the results.
“You have no idea what this year was like,” Izzo said. “But I think everybody takes that as a negative. You have no idea what a rewarding experience it was for me. I got four really good freshmen, but I got three really good ones and I got a star right now, and he’s physically played that way and mentally played that way. And for those guys to hang in there like they did, I mean, we pushed them.”
Each player left it all on the court by the end of the game. Through the grind of 35 games this season, freshman shooting guard Joshua Langford said his team showed nothing but toughness.
“If you just look at all the things we’ve been through you can give your hats off to this team,” Langford said. “Even though we didn’t go as far as we wanted to go, this team has been through so much adversity. We took the punches and we kept rolling.
You hate to end your season like this, but this team has done a heck of a job just with everything we’ve been through this year.”
Seniors Eron Harris, Matt Van Dyk and Alvin Ellis III will all graduate in the spring and hand the reigns to the soon-to-be veterans junior point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. and sophomore wing Matt McQuaid. Izzo’s highly-touted freshman class will take even larger rolls.
Even with his 20th straight NCAA Tournament now come and gone, Izzo said the most important thing for this program going forward is to continue its path for big runs in the month of March.
The regular season wins aren’t important for Izzo. It’s what the players take away from it.
“I have no interest, zero interest in winning games,” Izzo said. “I have interest in winning championships. I have interest in these guys getting a chance to play on these kind of stages. That’s it. That’s my only goal in life and then watching them fulfill their dreams. So that other stuff has no bearing on me, none.”
For MSU’s freshman class, digesting the loss and processing the season’s end is unimaginable. For a group to accomplish as much as it has with the barriers it has faced, Ward said the future creates nothing but upside.
“It doesn’t really hit you until the game is over,” Ward said. “You see the faces of the players and then you’re really feeling it. It hits you then. There’s good things and bad things, like I feel horrible for our seniors, but for all the younger players — the freshmen, the sophomores — we have another year. So we have another year to improve and get further in the tournament.”
If the Spartans take anything away from the loss to Kansas, it’s that there’s still work to be done. Players consistently battled themselves this season to string together a full game. When they did, they put together wins over elite competition.
Freshman point guard Cassius Winston said the loss to the Jayhawks was the most impactful for the remaining nucleus. Winston said if any loss MSU faced this season would be one to build on, facing the end of the season will help this team the most despite the sour taste it left.
“We don’t want this feeling again,” Winston said. “I feel like we had a talented enough team with enough pieces to make something happen in this tournament, but we came up short tonight. We’ve got those pieces coming back, a lot of pieces coming back, so I think next year we’re going to get in the gym, we’re going to get to work and we’re going to be ready.”
And with all the pieces MSU will have next season, Winston is determined the Spartans will return stronger.
“A loss like this just makes you hungry,” Winston said.