Everyone had theories about what went wrong with Michigan State basketball this season, whether it was the numerous off-court distractions, a belief that this year's team lacked the traditional leadership, toughness and defensive commitment that Tom Izzo teams have traditionally been known for.
The season was mentally draining for everyone involved, but there's also great hope for the future, and it will be on display this weekend at the Breslin Center at the high school semifinals and state finals, highlighted by Friday's semifinal between Brandan Kearney's Detroit Southeastern and Matt Costello's Bay City Western.
Although Costello, a junior, has another year of high school basketball ahead of him, he might represent the greatest hope for the future of MSU hoops. Costello might be the best high school player in Michigan right now, regardless of age.
Steve Bell of BankHoops named Costello to his overall All-State team. Jared Field of Great Lakes Hoops said Costello "can't get to MSU fast enough." Everyone knew Costello was good, but what he's demonstrated in the state playoffs this season has been the ability to raise his game when the stakes are higher. Here's a look at what he's done in leading Bay City Western to its first ever appearance in the state semifinals:
Districts: The team breezed through districts, albeit not facing the best competition (Bay City Central and Mount Pleasant had a combined five wins and Saginaw Heritage finished 11-12 this season). Western won each game and Costello averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Regionals: Although BCW was favored to win its district, the team faced perennial state powers Saginaw High and Clarkston in the regional tournament. Saginaw had handed Western one of its two Saginaw Valley League losses of the season in their only meeting, and did so impressively, winning 60-28 and limiting Costello to 11 points. In the regional, however, Western started quickly, building a double-digit lead against a Saginaw team dubbed "the most powerful high school in Michigan" by coach Lou Dawkins and withstanding a third quarter run to beat the Trojans in what would turn out to be the last game Dawkins coached at Saginaw. He resigned this week.
Clarkston wasn't as imposing a threat as Saginaw, but the team nonetheless cruised through its district and has legendary head coach Dan Fife leading a team deep with shooters and anchored in the middle by 6-foot-8 Marcus Hardy. It didn't matter. Costello had a triple double in the game, including a ridiculous 12 blocks, to give Western its first regional basketball title in school history.
Quarters: The win over Saginaw gave Western kind of a 'Cinderella story' feel, but by the time they dispatched Clarkson and advanced to the quarterfinals, most expected them to beat Orchard Lake St. Mary's. Costello's play wasn't sneaking up on anyone anymore, and he was getting support from solid teammates like Saginaw Valley State-bound Brandon Havercamp and point guard Tyler Ellis to prove BCW is a legit contender for a state title.
The team started sluggish against OLSM, and Costello had his top performance of the playoffs (with Tom Izzo in attendance), scoring 31 points and helping Western pull away with a 27-14 third quarter.
Kearney's Southeastern team, meanwhile, has been a known commodity all season. Kearney was a Mr. Basketball finalist (and a player who merited much better than a distant fifth place finish, but that's a discussion for another day) and his team also features Dayton commit Percy Gibson.
Southeastern, no doubt, had a tougher road to the Breslin, winning close games against Livonia Stevenson and Detroit Cody and drawing top-ranked Romulus in the quarterfinals.
Southeastern's most impressive performance came against Romulus, winning 73-51 with Kearney and Gibson being held in check as Romulus paid extra attention to both. The result was Southeastern showing its more than a two-man show as players like Darryl Flemister and Edward Brown helped carry the scoring burden.
Southeastern plays Western at 2:50 p.m. Friday, with the winner moving on to Saturday's state final. But bigger picture, it's good to see Michigan State getting recruits who are part of winning, postseason-tested teams at the high school level.
Who else to watch: Two possible Michigan State targets, point guards Monte Morris (Flint Beecher sophomore) and Travon Baker (Detroit Consortium junior) are still alive in the Class C playoffs. Beecher plays McBain Thursday and Consortium plays Schoolcraft. Consortium and Beecher are both favorites to meet in the state finals.
Consortium edged Beecher in the regular season, so a rematch could be one of the better games of the state finals if both teams avoid upsets and make it to Saturday.