IN THE END, MSU’S FATAL FLAW EXPOSED

MINNEAPOLIS — The game was lost, and the Spartans’ band played a somber tune, as if standing on the Titanic. Cheerleaders, some of them crying, stood arm-in-arm, like mourners at a grave site. Fans in the stands, covered in green, looked stunned, their mouths agape. “What happened?”

Inside the Michigan State locker room, Charlie Bell, the senior who had just played “the worst game of my life” in the last game of his career, stopped in mid-sentence and looked to his right. A few chairs over, Andre Hutson had his head in his hands. He was crying. The sight seemed to put a hush over the whole room. Next to Hutson, Jason Richardson turned into his locker and lowered his eyes.

What happened? Out in the hallway, under a spray of camera lights, Tom Izzo tried to answer the question: How did his powerful team, the defending national champions, lose to Arizona by 19 points? He looked sad. He looked deflated. He looked resigned, grim, melancholy and reflective.

What he did not look was surprised.

“All season long, I thought about why it’s so hard to repeat, why so few teams ever do it,” Izzo said. “I guess, in a way, I was waiting for this shoe to drop the whole year.”

The shoe that dropped, as it turned out, was less about what it takes to win than what it takes not to lose.

Throughout the season, MSU had plenty of players rise to stellar performances. And in their first four victories of the NCAA tournament, someone rose to the fore.

But Saturday, in the national semifinals, what the Spartans needed most was not a forefront but a backstop. Someone to stop the bleeding when Arizona began stealing every pass in sight. Someone to say, “Hold it. We’re Michigan State. We don’t make mistakes like this. Now watch me, and do what I do.”

The bell rang. No one answered.

No Mateen or MoPete

Izzo has been asked all year how his Spartans could possibly repeat as champions after losing key seniors Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson. The answer, in the end, was they couldn’t, because sooner or later — in this case pretty late — they would need the intangible that Cleaves and Peterson provided, namely, leadership with attitude.

This is no slight to Bell, Hutson or David Thomas, who, as seniors, set fine examples for their teammates. But there is a difference between standing in front of the line and leading it. Bell never seemed at home as point guard, and Saturday he looked out of place in any position. He made just one shot all night and threw the ball away five times, each one seeming to result in an Arizona dunk.

Hutson, meanwhile, went the entire first half barely touching the ball. That can’t happen. “I told him at halftime, ‘If I were you, I would have grabbed somebody by the shirt and screamed, “Get me the ball!” ‘ ” Izzo said. “By the time we did, it was too late.”

Now, when you win games by defense and rebounding — as Michigan State does — you can survive an off night by one of your stars, maybe even two. Not three. Jason Richardson — who was the team’s leading scorer — made two baskets all game. What’s worse, MSU seemed totally confused by Arizona’s switching defenses. Making an outside shot — sometimes even taking one — became a root canal.

In the end, confidence sank, and that poisoned everything. Suddenly, the Spartans were thinking about the simplest of passes, and in the split second added for thought, Arizona’s speedy guards picked them off and — as Izzo lamented — “returned them for touchdowns.”

Steal, lay-up. Steal, dunk. With each new deficit, the Spartans seemed to forget who they were.

Contrast that with Duke, which, in its semifinal, had a worse first half than MSU, trailing Maryland by as many as 22 points. But the Blue Devils came back to win, mostly because their star players — Shane Battier and Jason Williams
— would not accept a defeat.

Big game, big guns needed.

A final bus drive

But OK. Enough harsh words. Lots of teams were defeated in this tournament. Only one was dethroned.

“It is a lot more pressure carrying that around,” Izzo said of having to defend the title. “All year long, teams played better against us than they played against anyone else. They wanted to knock off that national champs.”

The burden becomes internal as well. You’re playing to protect something, instead of playing to grab it.

Given that, this team accomplished a great deal. Big Ten co-champions. Only four losses all regular season. Promising years for Randolph and Marcus Taylor. Proud accomplishments for all senior starters. And, as always, a workingman’s humility that is a refreshing change from so many other college programs — even ones that don’t have championship banners hanging in their gym.

More than an hour after the game, Izzo was still fielding questions. A member of his staff interrupted, and asked whether the players should take the bus back to the hotel without him.

“Nah,” he said. “I want to ride with my team.”

And he did, and they did, just as they rode together all season long. If they didn’t quite have a Braveheart-type leader, they were still a team, these Spartans, a damn fine one. And they almost did the nearly impossible. That deserves a salute, even as we wave good-bye.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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