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Retro Diary - Michigan State vs. Louisville in the Elite Eight (3/29/09)

Summer dreamin' about the year MSU beat the Big East's best on a deep tournament run.

When Joe suggested that we spend some time in the summer revisiting our favorite games in Spartan history with retro diaries, I knew exactly where mine was headed first. While the 2009 Final Four win over UConn is many people’s highlight from that season, I’ve always been idiosyncratically partial to the Elite 8 demoralizing of Louisville. Some of it is surely circumstantial. While many of our most vibrant sports memories anchor themselves in from sharing them with friends, family, and fans, the Louisville game is the opposite for me. I watched it alone sitting in a Buffalo Wings and Rings outside Columbus, Ohio on a return trip to Ohio U. There was no way I was missing this game while driving so I stopped and ordered enough food to justify taking a table to myself for three hours. A table full of Louisville fans had done the same, and I tried to restrain myself from making it weird with too much celebration.

What is so great about this game? First, the outstanding game from Goran Suton is one thing. He dominated the first half by taking advantage of Louisville playing off of him to hit multiple jumpers. As Pitino adjusted at halftime, Suton responded by facilitating in the second. Also, I have to confess with dark glee that I enjoy this game so much because we get to watch MSU break the Louisville spirit. It’s not my kindest nature that gets a kick out of watching my team suck the life out of an opponent, but it is satisfying.

Here is a retro diary of this semi-lost classic from 2009. I love this game and am going to spend some time on it. Grab a drink; we’re going to be here a while!

First Half

Delvon Roe is jumping. For a guy who would never be the same as the player Izzo recruited out of high school, the fact that he still gets the nod over Goran Suton to win the tip says something about where Roe started from in terms of athleticism. MSU is playing big to start with Raymar Morgan taking a wing spot at 6’8". Your other starters are senior Travis Walton and a sophomore Kalin Lucas.

Scoreless so far, Michigan State is starting slow and asking a lot of Raymar Morgan. He gets the first try as a ballhandler to beat the Louisville press and gets it across court before narrowly avoiding a trap and finding Kalin. Later, he camps behind the line and accepts Louisville’s offer of an open look only to miss. I often think that Raymar’s contribution gets misremembered for his time spent as the Spartans’ power forward. Here, he’s a mismatch, athletic 6’8" wing. I really like seeing MSU play a little bigger, and it feels like something Coach Izzo has gotten away from in more recent years. #TeamkeepBessonthewing

We have a basket! Finally, someone scores. It’s a beautiful play where Roe receives a post feed and pivots to dish the ball to Suton as Goran cuts down the baseline. With a smooth reverse layup, Suton puts MSU up 2-0.

Goran Suton hits the floor and Samardo Samuels is called for an offensive foul. The crowd reaction isn’t exactly a Big Ten student section, but it confirms the visual impression: there is a heavy Louisville representation at Lucas Oil. Scanning the lower bowl, it looks something like five to one red (at least). To refresh, this Louisville team is the #1 overall seed in the tournament, a team that won the GREATEST CONFERENCE IN BASKETBALL HISTORY (aka the 08-09 Big East). It’s possible these fans have shown up for a coronation to see their team advance to the Final Foul. Yet to see their team score, frustration is already brewing.

Louisville is using their 2-3 zone to slow Michigan State. The result is that Goran Suton is getting left wide open at the right elbow. He takes an almost identical shot to an earlier try and misses again. This is going to change.

Lucas commits a double dribble while pushing the ball off a rebound. No one is more locked into a game plan than color man Len Elmore. It’s very important to him that you know that Michigan State wants to slow things down and eat possessions to make Louisville play at MSU’s pace. This is clearly Big Ten stereotype BS. The 08-09 squad is the fastest playing Izzo team since KenPom kept track starting in 2002. This Louisville team ranks higher than MSU but still #115 nationally (major HT: KJ). They’re not Steve Nash and the Suns. Though Louisville’s quickness to get set defensively will slow them on most runs, MSU will push the ball up and look for early opportunities to attack throughout the game.

Chris Allen has cut off his dreads and stuffed them under freshman Draymond Green’s jersey. At least, that’s what it looks like.

MSU gets their second basket in a similar fashion to the first. Draymond Green makes an interior pass around the zone to a deeply set Marquise Gray who has inside position on Terrence Williams for an easy dunk.

Hustle play! Marquise Gray starts it by batting away a post entry, and Draymond Green charges to the baseline to bounce the ball off of star forward Earl Clark. The team clearly already loves this freshman. Kalin Lucas runs over to help him up, and Day Day gets the full support treatment from the end of the bench (Tom Herzog, Austin Thornton, and Jon Crandell).

While Kalin Lucas is getting a breather, Travis Walton runs the point for the first time. The senior captain shows his aggression by sending 170 lbs Edgar Sosa back about ten feet with a shoulder thrust. That is one way to create space.

Green gets the same elbow look they’ve allowed Suton and hits back iron. No one can sink much of anything. 6-4 MSU after almost seven minutes.

Can you jinx something that happened six years ago? Clark bombs a three over Green to give Louisville a one-point lead.

CBS gives us a close-up of Raymar "The Lone Ranger" Morgan sporting his plastic mask. After having his nose broken by Delvon Roe while rehearsing Macbeth playing Kansas, Morgan is capping a rough season of physical ailments that included the flu, mono, and walking pneumonia. Seriously.

Finally! Opposite elbow, different result. Suton hits one of these jumpers from the left side. This is enabled by a curious defensive choice by Louisville. Their interior zone is playing very close to the baseline which leads to Earl Clark hedging towards Delvon Roe, except Roe is already covered by Samuels. This leaves Suton wide open, and Clark has no time to recover and close out on the shot. Len Elmore mentions that this shot will be there all day. That’s about to become a bad thing for Louisville.

Louisville has had some success drifting guys over to the right side of the arc, and they get another 3pt shot to fall when Kalin Lucas is completely caught watching the ball and loses his man for an open kick. Halfway through the first half and it’s 13-10 Louisville. With every success, the energy of the crowd swells and it feel like the Cardinal fans are getting pumped for the team that put 103 on Arizona in the Sweet 16.

The adjustment game has begun. When Suton catches the ball at the free throw line this time, he is immediately harassed and gives up the ball. What happens next is a great exploitation of the Louisville zone and it’s based on simple numbers. Suton pops out behind the arc, moving without the ball, then gets it back. The Cardinals are outnumbered on the perimeter 3 to 2. With Durrell Summers waiting over in the corner, Earl Clark (again!) can’t immediately run out on Suton. When Goran fakes a pass to Summers and Clark takes a step that way, the Spartan center ends up wide open for his first three of the game.

Suton takes a free throw line shot and nails it to pull MSU back within one, 16-15. He now has 9 points.

We get our first visit from MSU’s third ballhandling guard, freshman Korie Lucious. As Gus Johnson introduces Lucious by discussing his turnover problems against Kansas, Korie drives into the lane, gets stuck, and throws the ball away to Clark to spark a Louisville fast break. Thanks, Gus.

Durrell Summers bobbles the ball then commits a foul to avoid losing it. The Spartans have 5 turnovers and no offensive rebounds. Eek. 18-15 Team Pitino.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and if you can’t cleanly catch Draymond’s pass when cutting to the basket, you might as well magically kick the ball up into your own hands for a point-blank layup. A lot is going right for Goran Suton.

As CBS cuts to a Suton highlight reel, I’ll soapbox about the relationship between the NCAA Tournament and draft status. I insist that what is good for the team is good for the players and that this should be a recruiting pitch. One doesn’t need to be an altruist to realize that deep tournament runs give more exposure to players and improve their draft status. Goran Suton is only a second round pick in 2009 because of this run, just as guys like Travis Trice are only in the draft conversation because of the tournament. A good run in the NCAAs turns first round guys into lottery picks, borderline guys into 1st rounders, and lands undrafteds a spot in the 2nd round.

Have I mentioned that the Michigan State Spartans are coached by Tom Izzo? A defensive stand resulting in a shot clock violation provides our first fist punch from the coach. Classic Izzo.

Body language tells a lot. We’ve watched MSU teams struggle and hunt to figure out a zone. However, after securing an offensive rebound, every MSU pass is crisp and purposeful. Composed, they’re moving the ball looking for a weakness and opportunity. An aggressive closeout on Kalin Lucas leaves Travis Walton open on the wing for a jumper, and the Spartans are back up 19-18.

Slow it down in the halfcourt, make the defense work. Ball like glacier. Yeah, we know, Len.

Line-up watch: MSU goes small. Raymar moves to the 4 for the first time in the game and Draymond plays center. Allen, Walton, and Lucas are your guards.

After a scramble for a loose ball results in contact and a no call, Elmore comments "Obviously, the question is whether the contact creates an advantage." HAHAHA, "whether the contact creates an advantage." How naïve we were then!

Okay, now we’re ballin’. Chris Allen has nowhere to go late in the shot clock so he tosses it out to Suton who fires over the smaller Louisville PG Preston Knowles and hits another three as the clock expires. Things are getting tense for the "home" crowd. Numerous Louisville fans have their hands on their head now. There’s less than four minutes to go in the half and not only is MSU not going away, they’re up 2. The big man out of Sarajevo by way of Lansing is killing the Cardinals.

After everything that has happened, Louisville cannot organize their zone defense in transition and again becomes outnumbered out at the top of the arc. Suton has so much time to shoot that he can glance to his right, set his feet, and take what looks like a practice triple. Suton has 17 at this point and will only score 2 2nd half points, but that won’t matter.

It’s the MSU fans, all gathered behind the bench sections, that are making noise now to inspire the Spartan D. They are not helpful and dribble penetration leads to a dish under the basket for a Terrence Jennings dunk. MSU 27, Louisville 26.

After Louisville splits a pair of free throws, Draymond grabs the miss and fires an outlet up the court to a streaking Lucious. The freshman-to-freshman connection results in a no-fear Lucious three.

MSU holds the ball for the final shot of the half and calls a timeout. There is no ambiguity over which coach has the lead. Izzo lets out a "Yeah, baby!" at his returning players, and Rick Pitino looks exasperated with Preston Knowles. When they return, an awkward set ends with an isolation play for Travis Walton (uhh..) who misses a runner. MSU leads 30-27.

Second Half

Same line-up as the starters: Suton, Roe, Morgan, Walton, Lucas. It’s remarkable how different this team plays based on the nature of its wings. The Walton/Morgan dynamic is very different from Brown/Ager or Forbes/Valentine; completely unique compliments and strengths.

Raymar has ditched the mask, but picks up his third foul anyway.

Len Elmore and I are going to continue to agree to disagree. I don’t think MSU is playing particularly slow or clock milking. They’re pushing the ball up against the Louisville press, which hasn’t given them much trouble. They’ve looked to penetrate early but the defense has generally settled to force MSU to work the ball around. On this possession, Lucas gets caught holding the ball as the shotclock expires. I don’t think it has as much to do with slow play as with quality Louisville defense.

One thing working for Louisville is backdoor screens, and they pull it off again. Instead of a slick pass for a layup, this one is a lob for a Terrence Williams dunk flying above Suton. Tying the game at 30-all, this is where you might get nervous as an MSU fan if you don’t know the outcome.

Defensive rebound, Morgan.
Morgan pass to Lucas to half court.
Long lob pass into the paint, Lucas to Roe.
Roe layup. 4.5 seconds elapsed. Take that, Len.

Fouls: MSU 5, Louisville 0. Wow.

Nice block, Terrence Williams. Enjoy your pose. This is your high-water mark.

Major missed opportunity for Louisville. They get their second block in a row and immediately secure the ball and push. With three men racing down the court at Travis Walton, it looks like they’re headed for an easy basket to extend the lead to 4 (which would have been the largest of the game). However, guard Andre McGee’s pass is long, and Walton outruns everyone to catch it and throws it back inbounds to Draymond Green. After drawing a non-shooting foul, the possession ends with a Kalin Lucas three. Michigan State 35, Louisville 34. Rick Pitino’s team will never lead again. This is a moment to bookmark.

An Earl Clark three spins inside the rim and pops back out. The tide has turned; ball don’t lie.

Edgar Sosa loses control and Travis Walton comes up with the ball. Durrell Summers gets the pass and breaks to the rim unopposed. Looking at Izzo, he stops to consider whether to pull the ball up, y’know, to burn the clock but decides to dunk it instead. Or maybe he just scores immediately. I can’t be sure. With the Summers slam following Draymond Green’s first points on a left-handed beauty, 41-36 is the largest advantage the game has seen so far.

Effort matters. Chris Allen misses a three but he outruns Knowles to gather the tipped rebound, finds Summers on the wing, and Durrell notches two more points. For once, Len Elmore and I are in total agreement. MSU is outworking an increasingly pressing, unsteady Louisville team.

I have not been keeping track but credit one defensive floor slap to #10, Roe.

Terrence Williams jacks a three, and Durrell Summers responds by making his own triple on the other end. MSU 46, Louisville 37.

I can understand the mixed feelings about these jerseys. I like them but maybe that’s just nostalgia for the Lucas/Morgan/Green era? However, the Dance Team uniforms are an indisputable miss. How can you mess up and obscure the Block S with a border? This fired-up young woman deserves better.

I do not know how Suton gets this offensive rebound away from Earl Clark and Jerry Smith, but he does and it’s one more moment when effort, skill, and a little luck is combining to bury the Cardinals. MSU is up 9 and shooting free throws. Suton splits them.

Louisville bench shot. The look on Earl Clark’s face does not inspire confidence.

Draymond Green is already demonstrating the skills that will lead him to the heights of the MSU’s rebounding rankings. He has his man boxed out perfectly, and when Lucas misses a long two, Draymond needs only to get his left hand on the ball to redirect it back to the rim. The ball literally stops for a fraction and falls through. The lead is now 12.

My friend Len has come all the way around. He is no longer accusing MSU of playing slowly, but recognizes that they’re strategically probing the Louisville defense for weaknesses.

Terrence Williams airballs a three with Green in his face. One of the ways this game got away from Louisville is when they became overwhelmingly perimeter oriented. Maybe it was fatigue, lack of fight, or simply trying to make up ground quickly, but Rick Pitino’s team spent a lot of time in the 2nd half rushing threes instead of working elsewhere to get a better shot. Their game in this half increasingly ignores the paint. As Gus Johnson points out, they’re already in the double bonus so why go way from the basket?

Summers three. It’s 58-43 Michigan State now. I will not digress much into talking about the career arc of Durrell Summers, but watching him play this game as a sophomore, knowing what’s coming in the UConn game, then his exhilarating junior year, followed by the disappointment of his senior season…it’s a lot to take in when you think about what might have been and how sharp he looks here.

In a play reminiscent of the first half’s sharp passing, MSU scores on a nice play from Suton to Allen on a cut. Allen is a step ahead and gets the dunk.

I’m not watching this game in HD or seeing the down time, and my recollection was that the Louisville body language and effort took a real downturn by this stage. I don’t really see it yet. In this possession though, Suton tries a late shotclock three, and when it misses, all the Louisville players are standing around as Chris Allen flies into the empty space to grab an o-board. Draymond Green taps in another miss and MSU’s victory is almost assured at 64-47 under three to play.

It’s academic but another offensive rebound, this time by Lucas, is salt in the wound. I get it now. This blowout sneaks up on you. There’s a surreal quality to it that had to surprise the Louisville team. You watch the game and it doesn’t exactly immediately set in that MSU has blown it open. The second half creeps along driven by a few bursts of Spartan success, but some voice says that game is still in play. Yet, here we are, there’s only minutes left and MSU is dominating and holding a double-digit lead. You realize that and the high of victory sets in. You know it’s really going to happen. MSU is headed to the Final Four. I get residuals of what I always loved about this game.

Gotta love it. Up 15, minute and a half to go, and Izzo is still coaching, furiously directing Kalin where to go with the ball.

Thornton, Dahlman, Herzog, Crandell, Ibok, oh my!

That’s it, Michigan State 64, Louisville 52. You know how the story goes from here. Michigan State would take down another Big East power in the Final Four with a victory over UConn. That weekend of celebration with MSU playing at Ford Field for a national championship was incredible. In the end, a UNC juggernaut supported by six future NBA players would be too much.

This game is still a favorite re-watching. The key sequence begins at 15:20 when Terrence Williams flies from the periphery to block a momentarily open Suton corner three. He lands and stands with a cold stare into the crowd. Upping the intensity, Samuels swats away Green’s drive on the next play. If Travis Walton doesn’t steal the fastbreak attempt, you might have Louisville up 4 with major momentum. Instead, MSU goes on a 14-3 run with contributions from Lucas, Green, Walton, and Summers to take the lead 46-37. Even when Jerry Smith responds with a 3, it feels like the Cardinals are treading water with 10 minutes left.

This was a great Michigan State team. They featured the Conference Player of the Year (Lucas) and Defensive Player of the Year (Walton). They won the Big Ten by going ten deep with major contributors at every class level. Watching a talent like peak-Kalin run the team with so many options and weapons is awesome. There’s no doubt that this group was championship caliber.  The talent and coaching was there.  Maybe all they were missing was better academic advising (sorry, had to go there once). 

It looks like MSU could be on their way back to this form. This spring and summer will be fun with AAU, Moneyball, and an overseas trip in August. As we wait, it’s been great to revisit some glory days and see this remarkable team again.