This Spar­tans team a blue-col­lar group

Michi­gan State back in Fi­nal Four

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Don Markus THE BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Leave it to Michi­gan State sopho­more for­ward Xavier Till­man to mess up Duke’s scout­ing re­port as well as the plans of its three cel­e­brated fresh­men, most no­tably Zion Wil­liamson, to fin­ish their one-and-done col­lege ca­reers in the NCAA men’s bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment’s Fi­nal Four.

And leave it to Till­man’s team­mate, fifth-year se­nior Kenny Goins, to go off-script from his own team’s play call to knock down the go-ahead 3-pointer in Michi­gan State’s 68-67 vic­tory that sent the Spar­tans to Minneapolis for Satur­day’s na­tional semi­fi­nals.

If ju­nior guard Cas­sius Win­ston is Michi­gan State’s un­ques­tioned leader, not to men­tion the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and the NCAA Tour­na­ment’s East Re­gion Most Valu­able Player, Till­man and Goins, along with se­nior guard Matt McQuaid, are its heart.

And this heart bleeds bluecol­lar.

It’s only fit­ting, given who coaches the Spar­tans.

Headed to his eighth Fi­nal Four, Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo has spent a ca­reer churn­ing out teams that re­flect his up­bring­ing in a place called Iron Moun­tain on what lo­cals call “the U.P.” _ Michi­gan’s Up­per Penin­sula.

But this year’s team, which over­came in­juries to ju­nior wing Joshua Lang­ford and ju­nior cen­ter Nick Ward Jr. to win a share of the Big Ten reg­u­lar-sea­son ti­tle and then win the con­fer­ence tour­na­ment, is much likes its bull­dog of a coach.

“I say we might not be as phys­i­cally tough as some teams I’ve had, but I think men­tally we might be tougher than any team I’ve had,” Izzo said af­ter the Spar­tans earned their first Fi­nal Four trip since 2015.

Lang­ford, who hasn’t played since suf­fer­ing an an­kle in­jury in late De­cem­ber, has watched the Spar­tans evolve into a team that has won 14 of its past 15 games, in­clud­ing nine straight, since los­ing three straight in late Jan­uary and early Fe­bru­ary.

Along with the loss of Lang­ford, the team’s sec­ondlead­ing scorer when he was hurt, Michi­gan State had to play sev­eral games with­out Ward, who broke his hand Feb. 17 and didn’t re­turn un­til play­ing eight min­utes in the Big Ten ti­tle game in Chicago.

Even in their re­cent string of vic­to­ries, the Spar­tans have not been un­scathed.

In Michi­gan State’s win over Michi­gan in the Big Ten tour­na­ment fi­nal in Chicago – the third straight win over its archri­val in a three-week stretch – key front­court re­serve Kyle Ahrens sus­tained a se­ri­ous an­kle in­jury.

There’s a much dif­fer­ent feel about this year’s Michi­gan State team than the past two sea­sons, when the Spar­tans were built around five-star tal­ents such as Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Lang­ford.

“We just play as a team, and we stick to the game plan more this year,” said Ward, who showed signs in the sec­ond half against Duke of being the in­side pres­ence the Spar­tans lacked when he was out.

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