Louisville 57, Michigan State 44 -- A Season's Epilogue

March 22, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Draymond Green (23) reacts after the game in the semifinals of the west region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament against the Louisville Cardinals at US Airways Center. The Cardinals defeated the Spartans 57-44. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

In basketball games, a point arrives where a fan goes from "my team still has a chance to win this game" to "my team probably will not win this game". For me, this point came midway through the second half, after a 6-0 MSU run brought the Spartans within 4 and their win probability to 40%. The next plays were the following: Chase Benahan layup, blocked Adreian Payne shot by Gorgui Dieng, Chris Smith three-pointer, Keith Appling turnover, Kyle Kuric transition layup. Although Louisville ceased to score before the next media timeout, MSU added a Draymond Green turnover and missed layup, before the game stoppage. By that time Louisville led by 11, and Michigan State's win probability had slipped to 12%. Not game over, but game essentially over.

That was a microcosm of the Spartans' final game of the season, where the defense was good enough to win (held the Cardinals to under 1 point per possession), and the offense was not nearly good enough. 9-28 of two and 5-21 from three along with 15 turnovers were among the final stats that doomed a Spartan team that simultaneously lacked energy on defense and pressed on offense. I think that's about all of this game I can stand to recap, and now to put the bookend on 2011-2012 after the jump.

It's hard not to feel disappointed after this game. A Sweet Sixteen appearance seemed like an adequate goal in November, but after the Big Ten Tournament and subsequently earning a number one seed, for many of us those expectations increased from "making the second weekend" to "New Orleans or bust". Even with Branden Dawson lost for the season, it seemed like State could overcome the loss with the accurate shooting rediscovered in the B1G tourney. Then comes a game like Louisville, when all the bad things happen at the same time, and all the thoughts one has of this team cutting down the nets in Phoenix and contending for a national title become null, void, and vanished.

However, one can simultaneously be disappointed in the final result of the season and proud of how far the team has come in a few months. The Michigan State Spartans did the following this season: played on an aircraft carrier, won their game in the B1G-ACC challenge, won 15 in a row at one point, beat Wisconsin not once, not twice, but thrice, stopped the Michigan three-game winning streak, won a share of the Big Ten regular season title (and was most likely an intact Dawson ACL away from having sole possession of the crown), won the Big Ten Tournament, made the Sweet Sixteen. If the biggest disappointments come from not having the regular season title all to one's self and bombing out in the second weekend (even as a #1 seed), I'd call that a pretty good year, especially after last year's circus.

Let's not forget how far the players have come too. A couple months ago I was mulling over a post that discussed Green's credentials to have his number retired; that debate seems moot now. He has the media accolades (Big Ten Player of the Year, Naismith Award Finalist First Team All-American on every significant team so far), the statistical accolades, which deserve no parentheses: MSU's all-time leading rebounder. 17th all-time in scoring (1,517 points; less than Drew Neitzel, more than Charlie Bell), his 420 assists puts him somewhere in the top 15, he's number 2 in steals behind Mateen, and number 2 in blocks behind Drew Naymick. What might be most impressive however was the way he led the team, and it looks like his number retirement is not a matter of if anymore, it's when.

Other seniors made strides too. Brandon Wood rebounded from a midseason slump to be the offensive catalyst in the Big Ten Tournament title game. Coming from Valparaiso he accepted his role as a second or third option on offense, improved his defense, and did everything that was asked of him without complaining. Austin Thornton made the unlikely metamorphosis from a little used preferred walk-on that could provide size at the wing to three-point assassin and hustle rebounder. The only other player I can remember having a 5th year transformation like that was Naymick, and it was greatly appreciated.

The improvement didn't stop at the seniors. Derrick Nix lost the weight, lost the problematic at times attitude, and became an offensive force inside. His up-and-under and baby hooks were things of beauty to me, as I cannot recall the last MSU big who could consistently hit a hook like Nix (we still love you Delvon Roe, but your hook shot was easily the worst part of your game). Adreian Payne learned how to play better on defense, got a bit stronger, and threw down a few of the most hellacious dunks known to man along with having a beautiful jumper. It would not surprise me to see Payne and Nix start at the 4 and 5 respectively next season.

Keith Appling's transtion to point guard was rocky early in the season, and I wondered if Travis Trice should start at the 1 and Keith should move to the 2. Applling jumped the learning curve in the second half of the season though, and had numerous games with at least five assists. Although he lost his jumper midway through the season, he still played lockdown defense. Speaking of Trice, many of us knew he had great offensive instincts, but I don't think many of us thought he'd be such a bomber from long-range. If he can put on 10 to 15 pounds this off-season, look out.

Lastly, Branden Dawson. There's not many things worse as a fan than seeing one of your players suffer an ACL injury; what added to the insult is that Dawson was finally starting to put it all together. His intensity on the defensive end was finally starting to match his frenetic offensive rebounding all year, and it'll always be one of the great "what ifs" of the season that he couldn't play in the postseason. His ACL has been repaired, and if I had to guess I'd say that he'll be back in November, albeit not at 100%.

This was a season at its start that started off better than last, simply because it wasn't last season. In December, it looked like this team was as good as advertised. In January, they were better. In February they had trials, and in March they exited Big Ten Season and Tournament champs. Although the ending was disappointing, it was only because the rise was meteoric.

Last year I couldn't wait to forget the season previous and move on. This year I don't want to forget how this team played, and I can't wait 'til November.

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