OR "The one where KJ gets all weepy at the close of the season"
Five months ago, I wrote this:
For now, I say we embrace the high expectations. The defensive move as a fan would be to say that last season was (almost) as good as it gets; let's not expect the same sort of success in consecutive seasons. But, if this program is truly on the path to long-term eliteness, annually-lofty expectations come with the territory.
So with high expectations fully embraced, I foresee the following:
- A 12-1 nonnconference record. That means beating two good, but clearly less talented, teams (Gonzaga/Florida) in home/neutral settings and then knocking off one of two equally-talented teams (North Carolina/Texas) in more hostile settings. I'll say we beat a very young UNC team on their home court but lose to Texas in Austin.
- A 14-4 conference record. We drop, at most, one game at the Breslin Center; beat Iowa, Penn State, and Indiana on the road; and pull off road wins in 2-3 games against the 6 potential NCAA Tournament teams we play on the road (no Ohio State).
- That'd be good for a 26-5 record and, hopefully, at least a share of the Big Ten title going into postseason play. The Big Ten Tournament is always a crapshoot; if we're setting expectations high, though, a match-up with Purdue in the final (to perhaps break a regular season tie) would be lovely.
- Nothing's guaranteed in the NCAA Tournament, which is what makes it such a fabulous sporting event, but if everything plays out to form in the regular season, nothing short of another trip to Indianapolis (hopefully as a #1 seed) would be satisfactory.
Two for four ain't bad--especially since the two I got right are the two we care most about. MSU failed to meet the lofty preseason expectations during nonconference play and the Big Ten Tournament was a one-and-done disaster, but a 14-4 record was achieved in conference play (albeit not in the manner described above) and a trip to Indianapolis for the Final Four was taken (albeit as a #5 seed).
This Michigan State basketball season contained more ups and downs than any other of the Tom Izzo era:
- Up: A #2 preseason ranking.
- Down: The underwhelming nonconference performance.
- Up: A 9-0 Big Ten start.
- Down: A 3-game losing streak--centered around Kalin Lucas' first injury.
- Up: The recovery to gain a share of the conference title, led by senior captain Raymar Morgan.
- Down: The agonizing BTT loss.
- Up: The run to Indianapolis--despite Lucas' second injury and major physical obstacles for Chris Allen and Delvon Roe--as Durrell Summers and Korie Lucious step into the spotlight and Draymond Green assumes the mantle of team leader.
In the end, the team ranked #2 in the preseason polls finished #4 in the final poll of the season. That final ranking is, of course, a function of the fact that the coaches weight NCAA Tournament performance for approximately 90% of their scores, but the NCAA Tournament is where college basketball success is ultimately judged for a team playing at or near the top of the sport. (A respectable #13 in the final Sagarin Ratings, by the way.)
Stepping back a bit, here's what the last two seasons have brought us:
- 21 wins over KenPom top-50 teams.
- A 29-7 Big Ten record, including a 15-3 mark away from home.
- Two Big Ten championship banners.
- Two Final Four appearances.
- 11 NCAA Tournament games, 5 of them played within driving distance of East Lansing.
The second part of that final bullet has special meaning for me. I've had the good fortune to be able to see my team play on the sport's biggest stage in person for two consecutive years. The odds are high that won't happen again in my lifetime (without plane tickets being involved, at least). As far as sports fandom goes, these last two years have been about as memorable as they come.
Only two teams in the country can argue they've had more success over the last two seasons than Michigan State has--the two teams that have lifted the national championship trophy aloft at the close of the two seasons. Not coincidentally, those are also the only two programs still ahead of Michigan State in the hunt for national prestige of the contemporary variety (OK, maybe Kansas, too).
That hunt continues for Tom Izzo and his team next season (more on that soon). For now, I say, as heartily as ever, it's good to be a Spartan.
P.S. File under things you already knew: Worst One Shining Moment ever. Way too much about the singer. It's not just the cutaways to Jennifer Hudson. Her voice is just to big for the occasion. The understated version sung by the late Luther Vandross was much preferable in terms of allowing the drama of basketball moments to speak for itself. Surely, there's another artist out there who can similarly do justice to the tradition.
P.P.S. Let the Durrell Summers draftwatch commence.