This Spartans team a blue-collar group
Michigan State back in Final Four
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.