The 2017-18 Michigan State Spartans have some lofty goals. It would feel like a missed opportunity not to at least play in the national championship, much less the Final Four.
While there is no doubt this year’s squad has the talent, MSU’s history is full of talented teams. Nine Spartans teams have reached the national semifinals, twice winning the title. It’s not always the most talented teams that reach the Final Four, but if they don’t play in the final weekend of the season this team will be remembered alongside the 2013-14 and 2015-16 teams.
So how does Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr. and the rest of this team stack up to previous Final Four teams?
The very first Michigan State team to reach the Final Four, was definitely the worst, but they nearly pulled one of the biggest upsets in the tournament history. Forddy Anderson’s squad finished the regular season with a 14-8 record before reaching the NCAA Tournament where they knocked off Notre Dame and Kentucky. In the Final Four, they played undefeated North Carolina, who would go on to beat Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in the championship game. A half-court, game-winning shot from MSU was waved off at the end of regulation, sending the game into its first overtime. The Spartans then allowed UNC to tie the game in the final seconds of overtime, forcing a second OT where the Tar Heels pulled away. It was a magical run through the tournament, but in comparison, the team just wasn’t that good.
By the start of the 2014 season, Tom Izzo’s legacy as a great coach was already cemented. But reaching the Final Four in 2015 may have been his most impressive work. The Spartans were coming off of a disappointing season and lost their best players to the NBA. The Spartans reached the tournament as a seven-seed, with almost no expectations from the young team. But then things got fun. Led by Travis Trice, Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine, Michigan State squeezed by Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville by a combined 23 points. MSU was an underdog in every game but the first-round and needed overtime to get by Louisville in one of the best games in recent NCAA Tournament history. Unfortunately, that’s where the magic wore off. The Spartans ran into a red-hot Duke team and lost by 20 points. Duke would go on to win the championship.
Coming off of a run to the national championship, the 2009-10 Spartans were one of the favorites to win it all. But the team couldn’t quite get things up and running, losing three straight in February and getting bounced in the first-round of the Big Ten Tournament. MSU entered the tournament a five-seed and just squeezed by New Mexico State in the first round. In the second round, Korie Lucious hit a game-winner while playing for an injured Kalin Lucas against Maryland. The team then held off Cinderella Northern Iowa before playing six-seed Tennessee in the Elite Eight. Raymar Morgan hit one of two free throws in the final two seconds of the game, sending the Spartans to the Final Four. In a game that nearly sent college basketball back 40 years, MSU looked to have a clear path back to the championship game against fellow five-seed Butler. The Spartans erased a late lead and had the chance to win in the final seconds of the game, but couldn’t get over the top. Instead, Butler moved on to play Duke in the championship.
With freshmen and sophomores filling up the stat sheet, the 2008-09 Spartans emerged as one of the best teams in the country. Earning a two-seed, Michigan State had a team that could dominate on both ends of the court, inside and out. The Spartans were led by Lucas, Morgan, Goran Suton, Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Delvon Roe. While not loaded with NBA talent, Michigan State beat Robert Morris, USC and Kansas before playing one-seed Louisville in the Elite Eight in Indianapolis. The win sent them to Detroit, acting as the de facto home team. The team shocked another top seed, UCONN, in the Final Four. The win was stamped with an exclamation point when Summers dunked over Stanley Robinson. Things seemed too good to be true as the Spartans played for a chance to win a third national championship roughly an hour-and-a-half from East Lansing. Unfortunately, they were too good to be true. MSU played North Carolina in the title game, a team that had beaten State by 35 points in Detroit earlier that year. The championship was nearly a mirror image of the previous game, the Tar Heels won by 17, in a score that was closer than the game felt.
There is no doubt about the pure talent on this year’s squad. Despite a January lull, the Spartans have looked like one of the best teams in the country throughout the season. While the most important part of the story is yet to be written, it already appears there is more in store for the players on this team. Both Bridges and Jackson should be lottery picks in the coming NBA Draft. Additionally, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and even potentially Joshua Langford have a chance of eventually getting into the NBA. If they can deliver when it counts this year, the 2017-18 team will jump much higher in this ranking.
After the incredible run of three Final Fours in a row, the Spartans hit a bit of a dry-spell, getting bounced in the first round two of the following three years. But the 2004-05 team came back in a major way. The roster was loaded with talent, four players would go on to have NBA careers. Those players – Maurice Ager, Alan Anderson, Paul Davis and Shannon Brown – didn’t quite live up to expectations during the regular season and got bounced in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. But entering the NCAA Tournament as a five-seed didn’t prove to be much of a detriment. The Spartans beat one-seed Duke in the Elite Eight by 10, earning a game against Kentucky with the Final Four on the line. A miraculous third-chance three-pointer from Kentucky as time expired forced overtime, but an impressive MSU defensive stand pushed the game into a second OT. That’s when the Spartans pulled away and free throws put the game on ice. Brown led the team with 24 points, with Ager putting up 21. But the double-OT thriller combined with playing another elite team proved to be too much for the Spartans in the Final Four. MSU lost to eventual national champion North Carolina 87-71.
The final year of MSU’s three straight Final Four runs, the 2000-01 team saw new stars taking over. Charlie Bell was the only Flintstone still on the team, but he was joined by sophomore Jason Richardson and freshman Zach Randolph. The defending champs cruised through the regular season on the way to a one-seed and kept that momentum through the early rounds. It wasn’t until the Elite Eight that a MSU opponent finished even within 15 points. After beating Temple, the Spartans were back in the Final Four facing Arizona. Bell was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player after averaging nearly 14 points through the tournament’s first four games. Arizona, however, was a very different story. The Wildcats ran MSU out of the gym, ending the Spartans three-year run in unceremonious fashion, losing 80-61.
Michigan State had gone 20 years between Final Four appearances, but in Izzo’s fourth season as head coach, things changed drastically. In large part due to the maturation of the Flintstones – juniors Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Bell, a sophomore. The Spartans finished the regular season on a 15-game win streak and then ran through the Big Ten Tournament to secure the top seed in the NCAA Tournament. MSU knocked off Kentucky to get to the Final Four, but lost to Duke in the national semifinal. Despite falling short, the Spartans and the three future NBA players set a team record for most wins in a season, and best winning percentage in the modern era, going 33-5 on the year.
The Michigan State Flintstones returned to the Final Four a second year in a row in 2000 and this time they wouldn’t be stopped. Peterson, Bell, Cleaves and Richardson led the Spartans to a second straight Big Ten Tournament and regular season championship and another one-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Once in the tournament, the Spartans ran through opponents without much resistance. Peterson and Cleaves were named to the all-region team, along with A.J. Granger and Andre Hutson. Peterson earned the Most Outstanding Player award. Peterson, Cleaves, Bell and Granger were named to the all-tournament team. The success of the team brought the Spartans onto the national stage, putting their annual expectations right along with the blue-bloods of the sport. It’s been nearly 20 years since the last championship, but that team still has a presence on the campus during every single Michigan State game.
In all honesty, this could pretty much be summed up with one word: Magic. Sophomore Magic Johnson averaged 17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists throughout the season. Oh, and he went on to have a pretty good NBA career. Along with Johnson, Greg Kelser, Jay Vincent and a young Jud Heathcote, the Spartans won the Big Ten and entered the NCAA Tournament as a two-seed. The Spartans were clearly the best team in the Tournament, and there wasn’t much fight. In the Elite Eight, Michigan State easily handled top-seed Notre Dame, winning 80-68. In the Final Four, MSU hung 101 points on Penn, winning by 34 points. Kelser scored 28 points but was totally overshadowed by Johnson, who recorded a triple-double, scoring 29-points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. The championship game is still remembered as one of the biggest matchups in tournament history, facing Johnson’s Spartans against one-seed Indiana State and Larry Bird. The game is hailed as the one that saved college basketball and put the tournament on the big stage. But when the game ended, there was no doubt who was the best team in the country. MSU won 75-64, and magic scored a game-high 24 points. He would be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Michigan State has gone to nine Final Fours, won two national championships, but there is only one statue outside the Breslin Center.