SEATTLE — On a drizzly afternoon in the land of endless coffee, Michigan State wrote the final entry in its season ledger and closed the book, leaving one column full and one column empty. The empty side reads “Highlights.” The full side reads “Disappointments.”
In a game that truly embodied their season, the Spartans took the lead, cruised far ahead, then let things lapse, then fell apart. By the end, their star player, Paul Davis, was on the bench with five fouls, and his teammates were taking turns clanking shots off the rim or missing it entirely. You name the mistake, they made it. Stolen pass. Bad fouls. Five-second violation. Palming. Palming? Do they still call that?
What’s the difference? MSU scored one basket in the last six minutes. And the worst part is, you saw it coming. In those final frames, in the tight expressions of Kelvin Torbert, Chris Hill, Maurice Ager or their coach, Tom Izzo, you could see the shadows of all that came before this — you could read the full side of that ledger. Non-conference play? Disappointment. Big Ten title? Disappointment. Big Ten tournament? Disappointment.
Well, you get the drift . . .
“It was kind of a microcosm of our whole season,” Izzo said after losing to Nevada, 72-66, and exiting the NCAA basketball tournament in the first round
— only the second time in Izzo’s coaching career that has happened. “All year long, we were a team that bounced back, bounced back, bounced back, but we just didn’t do the things we needed to put this away.”
Izzo’s face was red. His players’ jaws were low, their posture slack. But let’s be honest. Thursday night’s loss hurt this team badly, but not the way a first punch hurts. More the way the knockout punch hurts. Because the fact is, MSU has been getting knocked to the floor all year long when the big prize was on the line. Thursday’s collapse was just the time the Spartans couldn’t get up.
Missing a spark
“What were the last minutes of the game like?” someone asked Hill. “After Davis fouled out?”
“We needed someone to step up offensively,” Hill said, glumly, “and nobody did.”
Simple question. Simple answer. In fact, the Spartans were as dry as Bill Maher in the final minutes. And Nevada — behind the play of an NBA-bound guard named Kirk Snyder — went from seven points down to seven points ahead. There was no leadership from the Green and White. Just player-by-player collapse.
Davis had left on a weak but silly foul, after sitting several key minutes following another weak but silly foul. He finished with a team-high 16 points, but leading on paper and leading on the floor are two different things.
And without Davis, the rest of the Spartans fared even worse. Torbert, who had a good first half, was a goose egg in the second and got called for a five-second violation and, later, palming. Alan Anderson missed one wide-open lay-up, then missed a follow attempt. Matt Trannon missed the front of a one-and-one. Hill missed jumpers. Ager missed jumpers.
By the end, it wasn’t even a nail-biter. The Spartans didn’t lose by a bucket. They didn’t lose on a bad call. They needed a desperation three-pointer by Ager just to finish within six.
Said Anderson: “We just didn’t finish.”
And it finished them.
A fitting conclusion
And so it ends, and there are no doubt Spartans fans who are glad to see this season done. Although expectations were high for this team — some had MSU as high as No. 3 in the preseason polls — this team was a plant whose leaves never blossomed. Izzo scheduled a tough early road, including Duke, Kansas and Kentucky, and the Spartans paid for it, losing to every big-time opponent except DePaul, if you can call DePaul big time anymore.
MSU’s offense come together in the Big Ten season, but when the Spartans needed a victory most — against Wisconsin — Davis was on the bench with leg cramps and the game got away. They missed the title by one game.
In the conference tournament, they won once, then lost again to Wisconsin, by a basket.
And now this. One game and out. This will sting the program because Izzo is used to winning in the postseason — until Thursday, anyhow, he had the best winning percentage in the NCAA tournament among active coaches — and no doubt fans were hoping he could work some spring magic to make up for a dismal winter.
Didn’t happen. Instead, this will be remembered as a final loss to a team almost nobody had heard of. There’s some irony in that. A season whose ledger was full of close losses to great teams, ends with a defeat to a No. 10 seed. When you think of how highly regarded the Spartans once were — No. 3 in the country? — the fall is the longest in Izzo’s storied career.
“In life,” Izzo said, “you usually get what you deserve, and Nevada deserved to win.”
He didn’t say his team deserved to lose. He didn’t have to. The ledger spoke for him.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.