Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Program has a chance to join nation's elite

In the second half of No. 7 seed MSU's 68-46 win over No. 2 seed Florida, sophomore forward/guard Alan Anderson dropped a pretty dime to freshman forward Erazem Lorbek for an easy deuce.

As associate head coach Brian Gregory strolled by head coach Tom Izzo to call plays he asked, "Where did that come from?"

Gregory was referring to Anderson's true point guard-type pass, however, he could have been talking about the entire team's performance. And he likely would have echoed the sentiments of all Spartans fans and followers.

In the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, MSU has played like an entirely different team than it did in its first 31 games.

This can't be the team that lost to Toledo at Breslin Center. This can't be the team that dropped three consecutive Big Ten contests to Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes and Golden Gophers didn't even get invited to the Big Dance. This can't be the team that lost to Illinois by 30. Man, this isn't even the team that struggled to find the basket in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Ohio State.

Those teams were painful to watch in defeat and in victory.

Those teams didn't know what is was like to dictate an up-tempo game.

Those teams didn't get easy baskets, especially not dunks.

This team has done all of that against good teams.

Now, the Spartans move on to San Antonio to rumble with No. 6 seed Maryland - the defending national champions.

So everyone's asking the question: How far can this team go?

I dunno. What do I look like, Miss Cleo's daddy?

I know all the underdog lovers will disagree, but every team except No. 12 seed Butler in the East region and No. 3 seed Marquette in the Midwest (and maybe No. 10 seed Auburn in the East) have a chance to make it to the Final Four. As good as underdogs are for the tournament, the zebras wouldn't let a mid-major or even a team from Conference USA get to Bourbon Street.

But anyway, MSU does have a chance to move its way into the nation's elite. At the beginning of the season, Izzo said he eventually wanted the MSU to reach the status of programs like Duke and Arizona.

MSU, with its No. 7 seed and a 19-12 record heading into the tournament, hardly garnered respect from the college basketball world. And it showed in an ESPN.com fan poll, which had No. 10 seed Colorado favored against MSU in a first-round matchup. And many ESPN analysts chose the Buffaloes in the matchup as well.

But those fans kicked themselves and the analysts, of course, jumped on the bandwagon.

But success in March weighs much more than regular-season success or conference tournament triumphs. And now, many people will think twice before they choose MSU to conk out in the first or even second rounds.

And in the Terrapins, MSU now has its opportunity to take another step toward the elite class of college basketball programs.

Because of its epic battles with Duke, Maryland has been in the national spotlight a lot the past two-plus seasons.

And the Terrapins, too, are still trying to prove they can be a force in March year in and year out.

"They've almost gone the exact same way (we did)," Izzo said. "First year, they went to the Final Four, they lost. The second year, they won it. They lost three key people, we lost three key people.

"We had four juniors coming back who had played a lot. They had four juniors coming back. So, our pasts have gone almost identical but I hope that changes this weekend."

If MSU continues to play the way they have in the past two games, then its application to be among the elite can bump Maryland's down.

And Izzo can be one game closer to his dream.

Romando J. Dixson, the State News sports editor, has no love for the underdog in the NCAA Tournament. He can be reached at dixsonro@msu.edu.


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