INDIANAPOLIS – In the hyperdrive world of the NCAA tournament, it takes six days to go from overjoyed to overwhelmed. The Michigan State team that fanned crazy flames these last few weeks, flamed out badly in the national semifinals Saturday night. The Spartans’ 81-61 loss to Duke was their worst loss of the season, as gnawing as their wins were exhilarating. Too many mistakes. Too many fouls. Too clogged of an offense. Too good of an opponent.
“I don’t think we played very well,” said a resigned Tom Izzo after the defeat. “I think Duke had something to do with that and Michigan State had something to do with that.”
But the Duke part is what people will be talking about this morning. This was the ninth loss in 10 tries for Michigan State against Duke under Izzo, and, fairly or unfairly, it makes you wonder what the Blue Devils are doing right that MSU can’t match in their meetings.
True, it’s not as bad as having a 1-9 record against schools in your conference. But the odds suggest a team as consistently good as MSU would have a few more W’s in this series. What happened Saturday was not a shock. All week long, the experts said the Blue Devils would win if Jahlil Okafor had a big game, if its defense was as good as advertised, if Branden Dawson didn’t play huge, and if the Spartans got mired in half-court sets instead of running the floor.
Check, check, check, checkmate.
And that’s not even counting the 37 free throws they got.
Okafor finished with 18 points and six rebounds. Duke’s defense held MSU to under 30% shooting in the first half. And as Izzo suggested, the Spartans shot too many arrows in their own feet.
“The times we made bad plays hurt us,” Denzel Valentine said.
“Any time we made (a mistake),” Travis Trice added, “they made us pay for it.”
That was major payment. By the second half it was already over, with 15- and 17- and 20-point deficits, and the kind of nasty dunks on fast breaks that tell you, before the buzzer, which team is going on and which is going home.
“We’re not going to say, ‘Oh, they’re Duke,’ ” Valentine had told the media this past week. “We’re going to attack them and play with no fear.”
The Spartans did exactly that — for about four minutes. They came out firing, jumping to a 14-6 lead. Four of their first five baskets were three-pointers, three from Valentine, another from Trice. The ball was moving. Guard play is the hallmark of MSU teams, and this one, in the opening minutes, looked like tradition continued.
Spartans fans were dancing.
But then things settled. Like quicksand. The Duke defense tightened and made MSU go deep into the shot clock; what resulted were forced attempts or even air balls. Guys couldn’t get their spots. Dawson looked disconnected, Trice was hardly his excellent self, ball movement died, and when Gavin Schilling went to the bench with his second foul on Okafor, you could see Okafor salivate.
Before long, the 14-6 opening had been reversed by a 14-2 Duke run, led by Okafor in often easy fashion, scooping the ball off glass or banking in a wide-open jumpers, and generally terrorizing junior center Matt Costello.
Okafor, in person, is even bigger than advertised. The 6-foot-11 freshman looms like a castle wall. At times Saturday, he came high with his hands up and blocked the sunlight from guards, even stealing the ball from Valentine. He is a disruption wherever he stands, and you need to account for him all the time.
Meanwhile, the Spartans seemed out of rhythm, particularly when they got mired in a half-court set-up offense — which was far too often in the first half. The way to beat this Duke team is to run and get on the Blue Devils before they set up that defense. Or to bang away on three-pointers. Barring the first few minutes, the Spartans could do neither.
That was largely because of 12 fouls they committed in the first half.
Did we mention that Duke was hitting nearly all its free throws?
That was a bad sign. A team that was supposed to be as bad at the line as, well, MSU this year, suddenly became Nate Archibald. Even backup center Marshall Plumlee, with a form straight out of Stiff School, got one to clang high and drop in.
By halftime, the Spartans were down 11, their biggest such deficit of this tournament. Mistakes had defined them. Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn missed a gimme lay-up. Dawson missed a short, wide-open jumper. And Costello just had a bad half. He couldn’t stop anything. He wasn’t rebounding. He fouled.
The result of all this? The Spartans missed 17 of their last 20 shots. They had a total oftwo assists. They had 25 points to show for their first 20 minutes.
And then it got worse.
No comebacks allowed
Whatever hopes Izzo had of reversing the tide vanished in the opening minutes of the second half. Dawson was stripped of the ball, then got called for a foul. Trice missed a lay-up, and Duke responded with a long pass and a breakaway dunk by Okafor, which was a lot like Thor throwing down his hammer.
As Valentine said, it wasn’t just the mistakes, it was the timing of the mistakes. Each one sapped more of the Spartans’ spirit, until the game became one of those “you can try hard but nothing is changing” affairs. At one point, four MSU players went to block a shot on a fast break, and none of them accounted for Okafor trailing, who grabbed the rebound and slammed it down. Duke fans went wild. Spartans fans shook their heads.
Ugh. Enough detail. Any more is torture. Suffice it to say there were too many fouls, not enough speed, Duke backups playing better than MSU starters, and, finally, Spartans body language that said, “We’re not coming back from this, are we?”
No, they were not. They may not have needed the perfect game to beat Duke, but they couldn’t lay an egg. And that is what this was. Their shooting was bad. Their ball sharing was bad. Their turnover ratio was awful. They played into Duke’s hands — fouling too many Blue Devils penetrations.
And Duke squeezed them out.
So disheartening was this for Izzo that afterward he sounded like he was rethinking his approach. “I gotta do a better of recruiting, because I’m gonna just get guys who can drive if that’s the way the game’s gonna be called.”
Wait until …
But OK. Let’s give it some perspective. This was bound to a “careful what you wish for” scenario for Izzo. For a while now, he’d been saying of how amazing it would be to see this team (which not so long ago lost at home to Texas Southern) to reinvent itself and make it to the Final Four.
Well, the Spartans did it. But sports, even college sports, is all about yesterday’s expectations being washed away by today’s. And so The Little Team That Could become The Next Team That Needed To.
Beat Duke, that is.
Instead, these Spartans (27-12) will carry another scar from the same old blade. Duke knocked MSU out of the tournament in the third round two years ago, MSU got Duke in 2005, Duke beat MSU in the Final Four in 1999. In between, the Blue Devils have basically had their way. They’ve won every other contest between Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski.
“I think you have to give them credit,” Izzo told the media this past week. “They’ve just been a little better. …
“There’s always landmarks that you’ve got to step beyond as your program builds. This is one of ours that we still haven’t conquered.”
And still haven’t.
After the game, Krzyzewski said of the game that Izzo was lamenting, “The last 36 minutes, we played great.”
A great run
But that’s what this tournament is. Only one team gets to go nuts at the end. The Spartans’ loss Saturday — the biggest loss ever by an MSU team in the tournament — still doesn’t diminish their accomplishments: beating a No. 2 and No. 3 seed to get here. Rising above a low ranking to start the year. Coming back from self-doubt and external doubt and even, if he were to admit it, coach-doubt, after some of their setbacks this season.
“I feel bad because I didn’t think people got to see the team that has won 12 of the last 15 games,” Izzo said.
Then again, at least they were seen. Sixty-plus teams can’t say that.
By the end, the Spartans’ bottom line was this: a near victory in the Big Ten championship, four Big Dance victories, a Final Four appearance, a senior guard, Travis Trice, who reached his peak, a junior guard, Denzel Valentine, who stepped into leadership, and a quixotic senior forward, Branden Dawson, who remains, well, quixotic.
But what people loved about this team was its closeness, its laughter, its brotherhood and its modesty. They loved hearing Valentine admit that he told Izzo, in the closing minutes, “I’m going to get you here next year, Coach.” None of that goes away, even if it was hidden Saturday on sunken faces and watery eyes. The younger players should remember how quickly six days can change the world. It begins with celebration. It ends with tears. This is the Final Four.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.