Wednesday, February 21, 2024

'Someday Cinderella, that slipper fits': A look back on MSU men's basketball's 2022-23 season

March 24, 2023
Michigan State huddles during the Spartans' Sweet Sixteen matchup with Kansas State at Madison Square Garden on Mar. 23, 2023. The Spartans lost to the Wildcats 98-93 in overtime.
Michigan State huddles during the Spartans' Sweet Sixteen matchup with Kansas State at Madison Square Garden on Mar. 23, 2023. The Spartans lost to the Wildcats 98-93 in overtime. —
Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

Michigan State wrapped its 2022-23 season with a gut-wrenching 98-93 Sweet 16 loss to No. 3 seed Kansas State, the team’s second time this season playing at Madison Square Garden. The Spartans missed a few free throws, gave up some turnovers and failed to make key stops down the stretch. Although they hung on to force overtime, the Wildcats ultimately outplayed them, moving onto the Elite Eight and knocking away the Spartan’s shot at advancing in the tournament. 

“We played pretty damn good and should be proud of that,” head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo said. “I was just proud of this team with as many teams that I’ve had that have gone far and lost cause the way this team grew the past couple of weeks, it was fun to see that happen.”

Despite the disappointing end to MSU’s NCAA tournament run, the Spartans have had quite the season with their fair share of highs and lows.

The season began with its rigorous nonconference season, arguably Izzo’s most challenging yet. The Spartans finished 8-3 after a deflating one point loss to Gonzaga in the Aircraft Carrier Classic, an electric double-overtime victory against Kentucky in the Champions Classic where junior center Mady Sissoko shut down skepticism on his abilities in the middle and a 2-1 weekend in the Phil Knight Invitational with the absence of two key Spartans, senior forward Malik Hall and sophomore guard Jaden Akins.

A blowout loss at Notre Dame put the Spartans back on track heading into conference play. Once the Big Ten tipped off, the green and white got off to a hot start with a seven-game winning streak against both Big Ten and a couple of nonconference opponents, motivated by a devastating loss at home to the Northwestern Wildcats. 

For the remainder of the regular season, inconsistency set in with wins and losses that ebbed and flowed. 

MSU men’s basketball faced its fair share of challenges, beginning with the sudden news of a stress reaction injury for Akins prior to the season accompanied by Hall just hours before the first game in the Phil Knight Invitational. 

The Spartans had to navigate a stretch of games without two of arguably their most versatile, two-way players, on an already shortened roster.

“The injuries - everybody has injuries,” Izzo said. “But to have two main guys out when we didn't go fishing.”

Putting injuries aside and the obvious drawbacks brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the most difficult obstacle occurred on Feb. 13, one the entire university would endure together. A shooting on campus left three students dead, and five in critical condition. As the Spartan community united as one and were given a week away from classes to grieve, MSU men’s basketball was given a short few days, and then had to figure out a way to cope while continuing on with the rest of the regular season.

Once the Minnesota game was canceled following the university-wide tragedy, the Spartans were set to travel to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines in the most unusual rivalry matchup in program history, to say the least. 

MSU was welcomed by its rival with open arms. The Wolverines were dressed in Spartan Strong T-shirts, created signs expressing their support towards the community and performed MSU’s alma-mater as the Crisler Center's lights dimmed to green. Although the green and white returned to East Lansing having fallen to their rival, there was still more work to be done.

“I’ve been saying it over and over, we just continue to handle adversity,” senior forward Malik Hall said. “Coach always talks about what being a Spartan truly means. You’re always fighting, you go down fighting and I think that's something that we did tonight (against Kansas State). We didn't give up. Thought we should’ve won the game, we just kept fighting to the very end.“

That resiliency that comes with being a Spartan carried on through the rest of the season. MSU celebrated an exceptional win against the ranked Hoosiers and all-star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, followed by a haunting comeback, where the Spartans blew a 13-point lead with 1:30 left in regulation to Iowa.

All of which prepared MSU for the postseason. Once the green and white fell to the Buckeyes in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, a squad they had knocked off twice during the regular season, they approached the NCAA Tournament eager to make a run.

After a preseason full of doubt on how the team would fare with a lack of depth and the absence of a dominant center, it’s fair to say the Spartans exceeded expectations, being the final Big Ten team to exit the NCAA Tournament. 

Through adversity, the Spartans remained tough, exhibiting grit on and off the floor.

“It’s been a hell of a year, a lot of bumps personally and a lot of bumps with our team in general,” Hall said. “I think this is something we can look back on and say we made a lot of stuff happen, nobody would have blamed us if we didn’t make it happen. Nobody thought we were gonna be here anyways, so I think we accomplished more than anyone thought of us in the first place.”

Next season marks 24 years since MSU (or any Big Ten team) last hung up a NCAA championship banner, and Izzo’s prepared to change that, especially with one of the top ranked incoming classes in the nation. 

“If you keep knocking on that door man, someday,” Izzo said. “Someday Cinderella, that slipper fits, someday – and you’ve just gotta keep knocking on it.”

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