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Spartans taking 'business-like' approach against defensive-minded TTU

April 5, 2019
Junior guard Cassius Winston (5) and freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) during Michigan State's NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four open practice at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 5, 2019. (Nic Antaya/The State News)
Junior guard Cassius Winston (5) and freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) during Michigan State's NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four open practice at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 5, 2019. (Nic Antaya/The State News) —
Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

MINNEAPOLIS — Nobody on Michigan State's roster is worried about falling flat.

Even though it happened once after a comeback win on the road versus then-No. 19 Iowa in late January, which preceded three-straight losses to Purdue, Indiana and Illinois. And six days after an emotional win against then-No. 7 Michigan on the road, the Spartan's couldn't stave a 12-point comeback against an unranked IU at Assembly Hall on March 2.

That was then. This is now.

According to Joshua Langford, something feels different for No. 2 MSU, which will play No. 3 Texas Tech on Saturday (8:49 p.m. EDT/CBS) in the NCAA Tournament semifinals, after an emotional 68-67 win over top-seeded Duke in the Elite Eight to bring the Tom Izzo-coached Spartans to the Final Four for the eighth time.

Izzo wouldn't let his team bask in the win for long.

"We always have a business-like approach and once we complete one thing, that's in the past," said Langford, a co-captain who's been out since Dec. 29 with a stress injury in his left foot. "We know we have a tough game ahead with Texas Tech and the way coach coaches us, the next day he brought us right back down. He doesn’t let us get too high and I think that’s what’s good about this team."

For MSU, the Final Four isn't good enough. Izzo said earlier this week the goal is to win his second national championship. His players are hungry for a title, too.

“We need to have that mindset that we’ve made it to the Final Four, but we’re not done yet," forward Xavier Tillman said. "We’ve got two more games. You’d think that after the Duke game, that we would be relaxed and content with our season, but we still have two games to lock in on and focus for 40 minutes to come out on top.”

Tillman scored 19 points in 29 minutes last Sunday against the Blue Devils, but also had two blocks and three steals, but could face a unique matchup against the Red Raiders' "no middle" zone defense.

Tech held the Wolverines to 1-for-19 from 3-point range in the 63-44 win in the Sweet Sixteen on March 28. Under the defensive scheme of coach Chris Beard — the Associated Press Coach of the Year — the Red Raiders also beat No. 1 Gonzaga 75-69 in the South Region finals to advance to the program's first NCAA semifinals.

Earlier this week, Beard called Izzo an "idol", with the chance to go up against him one of the best opportunities Beard has had in his three seasons at the helm of Tech.

"On the basketball court, everybody has an idea kind of the way the game's played, and the way Michigan State plays is exactly how I kind of visualize the game, defense and toughness," Beard said. "They have an identity. He coaches his guys hard, but you can tell he loves his guys, and they love him."

The only player remaining in the tournament who's been to a Final Four is MSU forward Kenny Goins, a fifth-year senior to walked-on before the Spartans' run in 2014-2015. Except for Izzo's coaching experience, it's been uncharted territory for an upperclassmen-ridden MSU team, which won the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament.

As for what to expect for the atmosphere at U.S. Bank Stadium when tipoff arrives, nobody knows what to expect.

"The freshmen sometimes ask me, what do we do now or what it's like," point guard Cassius Winston — MSU's leading scorer, averaging 18.9 points per game — said. "I'm like this is my first time too, you know. We're doing this together."

But if one thing is expected, it won't be falling flat.

"We understand that every game is going to be a challenge," Langford said. "But once we complete that one, it’s on to the next. It’s all about focusing in and locking in at the task at hand."

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