MSU men's basketball dream season is over, but future looks bright
MSU head coach Tom Izzo knew all season there was something special about this team. He said all year he thought this was one of the best teams he had ever coached.
MSU got off to the best start in program history, winning its first 13 games. So when the final horn sounded the afternoon of March 18 and the season came to a crashing halt for No. 2 seed MSU with a 90-81 loss to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State University, Izzo wasn’t mad or disappointed in his team — he was sad he didn’t have more time with it.
“I don’t go out and say ... I didn’t guarantee any Final Fours, but really really felt in my heart, and I still do that this team was capable of winning a national championship,” Izzo said. “I did say there’s more than one team, but I’m not going to hide behind what I said because I believed it — and I believed it after we lost, so that probably tells you how strongly I believed it.”
“But it didn’t happen and I don’t regret saying it now, I don’t regret their mission since we got beat by Duke, I just regret that I didn’t get to coach them a little longer, that’s what I regret. Selfish on my part, but it’s fair.”
MSU did not lead the entire game against Middle Tennessee, but had several chances to take the lead during mini-runs, which could have swung the momentum in MSU’s favor like MSU had done to teams in tight games all year.
Junior guard Eron Harris said being so close to taking the lead and maybe having momentum swing in their favor made the loss even tougher, because he said the players felt like they just couldn’t get over one small hurdle.
“Once that time starts winding down and you like, ‘when are we going to get over this hump?’ And it never happens, they keep making big play after big play, it’s just demoralizing and before you know it, you just realize there’s not enough time left,” Harris said.
MSU’s players and coaches put enormous pressure on themselves this season to get back to the Final Four and finish what they started last season, but they did not feel like the pressure ended up causing their downfall.
“No, there wasn’t pressure like that,” Costello said. “We had expectations for ourselves, but we just failed defensively today. That’s where we’ve hung our hat all year and we couldn’t stop them. And that started with me at the three. So, man, just sucks.”
Izzo said there was a lot of pressure on the team, but said that is to be expected at a program like MSU because of the tradition of winning.
“There was pressure,” Izzo said. “They put it on me and I put it on them. Isn’t going to change as long as I’m here. That’s why you come here. You (don’t) come here to win a few games, you do that at Northern Michigan. Come here to try to win a championship, and that’s the pressure.”
Senior guard Denzel Valentinewill go down as one of the best Spartans ever to don the jersey on and off the court after finishing his career as the only player in MSU or Big Ten history to total 1,300 career points, 700 career rebounds and 500 career assists. Valentine finished his career with 1,645 points, 856 rebounds and 639 assists throughout his four years.
Valentine said while the team fell short of its ultimate goal, he learned a life lesson he will carry with him for the rest of his life.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Valentine said. “And I didn’t handle it today. ... But I got something that I’ll never forget the rest of my life — that when you’re in this position and everybody’s looking at you, you’ve got to come through. I didn’t come through today and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
Successful legacy not lost
This year’s team had been through a lot heading into the NCAA Tournament, and it seemed all the good that came from the tough times was starting to show at the end of the season. Izzo just hoped after the loss this team and its seniors are remembered for everything it they did rather than what they didn’t do.
“I just care about the present and what they did for me, for us,” Izzo said when asked about what lessons he could take from the loss for next season. “And somehow I’ve got to make sure that in all this disappointment that does not get lost, because that’s the problem with sports; it does get lost. And somebody’s not happy unless they win it all.”
After losing Valentine to an injured knee early, fighting through a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, including two home losses and seeing a season limiting case of plantar fasciitis stop sophomore guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. from playing his normal big minutes, MSU was clicking heading into the NCAA Tournament.
MSU had won 13 of its last 14 games going into the tournament, many of them by large margins, and captured a Big Ten record fifth Big Ten Tournament title for MSU. The senior class finished as the second winningest class all-time with 112 wins.
This was one of the best teams Izzo has ever coached, statistically speaking. MSU was ranked highly all season in several key statistical categories, such as 3-point percentage, field-goal percentage defense, rebounding, points allowed and assists, not to mention being Izzo’s highest scoring team ever at 79.8 points per game.
MSU was getting phenomenal play from Costello, specifically after Valentine went down and Costello knew he had to do more for the team. Costello averaged 10.4 points and 8.2 rebounds and had been a key to MSU’s success this season. Costello was the first player to average a double-double in Big Ten play since Draymond Green did for MSU back during the 2011-12 season.
Before the season began, Costello was about as far off of the radars of NBA teams as a player could be, but after a stellar season and a solid 22-point and nine rebound performance in MSU’s first-round loss, Izzo thinks Costello could be looking at a career in the pros.
“Really happy for Matt because he played one of his best games,” Izzo said. “And I think he’s put himself in a position where he’ll get to play some after this.”
Eron Harris, the transfer from West Virginia, found his niche with the team after a rough start to the season. Harris began the season seemingly like he was forcing his offense and letting his offensive struggles affect his defense. When Nairn went down and Harris was thrusted back into the starting lineup, he answered the call.
Harris developed into one of MSU’s best on-ball defenders as the season went on and became one of the most consistent players. Even when his offense wasn’t at its best, MSU’s players and coaches knew they could rely on his defense, especially down the stretch.
The final piece of MSU’s championship puzzle seemed to be in place as well. Valentine’s long-time friend and teammate senior guard Bryn Forbes emerged this season not only as the best shooter for MSU, but one of the best shooters in all of college basketball.
Forbes increased his production by almost six points per game and improved his 3-point shooting from 42.7 percent in his first season with MSU to 48.1 percent this season. But Forbes’ biggest improvement was on the defensive end of the court, and while Izzo said Forbes might be the best shooter he’s ever coached, he also has praised Forbes for his dedication to getting stronger and better defensively.
“But I am fortunate that (Forbes is) here and there’s been a Shawn Respert, a Steve Smith, you know,” Izzo said Thursday before MSU’s first round loss. “There’s been guys that can knock down knock-down-shots — Chris Hill — but I don’t know many better that I have had that can do it on a consistent basis like this kid has done it. Add that to the fact he’s gotten bigger, stronger, way better defensively. He’s improved his game a lot this past year and that puts him in the position he’s in.”
MSU had its star in Valentine, great shooter in Forbes, true low-post threat in Costello, defensive stopper and playmaker in Harris and rim protector in freshman forward Deyonta Davis. MSU averaged 9.2 3-pointers per game and had a strong low-post presence outscoring almost every team they played in the paint.
Everything seemed to be in place right before it fell apart for MSU.
Izzo said although he doesn’t want to think about the future right now — he knows when he looks back on this team and all it accomplished, even through adversity, he will look at it as a team that he owes for helping him find his passion and fire for coaching again, something he said he had lost for a few years.
“Those that know me, I don’t say this team was better than this team, was better than this team,” Izzo said. “This team was a lot like Zel. It was the most versatile team. It did things off the court, on the court and in the classroom like none I’ve ever had. It just didn’t work out for this team, but it won’t dampen my respect, love, care, it won’t dampen it at all. It will be used for whatever length of time that I’m here. In other words, other teams are going to hear starting next two weeks from now when we start looking at things again, they’re going to hear what this team did. That’s probably the best compliment you can give them.”