Two. That’s how many three-pointers No. 7 Michigan State had as time expired in its game against No. 2 Marquette. Yet somehow, it’s the Spartans who will be in New York next weekend for the Sweet Sixteen.
It’s often said that games in March aren’t decided by talent - it’s defense, experience, coaching and rebounding. If there was a game that exemplified that idea perfectly, it was this one. In a highly physical matchup, MSU was the last one to get off the mat.
“I’ve been in Elite Eight games, I’ve been in Final Four games - that was as intense and tough a game as I’ve been in in my career,” head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo said.
Michigan State didn’t pull off an upset with a stellar night from beyond the arc or a poor shooting performance from its opponents, which are often ingredients called for in the recipe for an upset. In fact, the Golden Eagles were stellar from deep: they shot just over 40% from three.
Instead, it was defense and rebounding that won the day for MSU - two class traits of head coach Tom Izzo’s teams.
For weeks, he’s been stressing the importance of returning to that form of basketball. Even when the Spartans ended the regular season shooting the lights out from deep, Izzo was quick to mention the risk of relying on the three-ball in March.
He was proven right when Michigan State went ice-cold against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament and the defense put up a tepid showing, sending the Spartans back to East Lansing after just one game.
Two games into the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans aren’t making that mistake anymore. Defense and rebounding, the classic Michigan State duo, is to thank for MSU’s trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
“We haven’t made many threes,” Izzo said. “That’s why your defense matters.”
It was always going to be tough to play like that against the Golden Eagles. Marquette is a team that finished atop the Big East regular season standings, won its conference tournament and was ranked sixth in the final AP Poll of the season. There’s a reason the Golden Eagles were given a No. 2 seed in the tournament.
But Michigan State played with consistency, primarily on defense. There wasn’t a lot of heavy pressing; MSU just stayed solid in its gaps and forced Marquette to make mistakes. And the Golden Eagles made plenty. They racked up 16 total turnovers, constantly wasting possessions and bringing momentum to a halt.
“I thought they got into us worse than we got into them,” Izzo said. “We played our defense, which was more gap defense, they played their defense, which is really in your face.”
At points, it wasn’t an especially pretty game. The aforementioned abysmal showing from beyond the arc stopped Michigan State from running away with the game in the first half and gave Marquette every opportunity to take firm control of the game. Personal fouls were aplenty - MSU finished with 19 and the Golden Eagles 18. Marquette’s frequent turnovers were also tough on the eyes. However, winning formulas aren’t always pretty, especially when it's a formula reliant on defense.
The defensive performance was a complete one, featuring players from across the lineup. It didn’t come out of the blue, it's been building all season. From the brutal players non-conference to the slog through a frighteningly deep Big Ten, Michigan State is using those past battles and rounding into shape at just the right time.
“We went through the ringer,” fifth-year senior forward Joey Hauser said. “We’ve been through it and we’re prepared for this moment."
Perhaps most importantly, that development isn’t just coming from the top-down; it’s Izzo’s players holding each other accountable. Junior center Mady Sissoko was a shining example of that Sunday evening. After a rough stretch, a visibly frustrated Sissoko stormed off to the huddle.
“He was really upset in the huddle, upset like I’ve never seen Mady,” Izzo said. “I think the coolest thing is he went out and did something about it. That’s growth - that’s growth as a person, that’s growth as a teammate. And the team rallied around him."
Sissoko finished with 10 rebounds, eight points, two steals and two blocks.
Michigan State is playing with confidence and consistency. Led by its players, the Spartans are playing like a classic Izzo team just in time for March.
“This year, leadership has been a question for us,” Hauser said. “Late there in the game, we were all just dead tired. We were praying that time would just keep ticking, but we kept making plays. And every time there was a break in action, we got together and made sure everybody knew exactly what we were doing. I think leadership is really our strong suit now.”