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MSU Basketball - March memories of the Izzo era

A fictional story that takes us back to the wonderful Final Four runs of years past.

MSU v Florida Cleaves
The 2000 National Championship.

(Part of the upcoming tale is fiction and nobody knows if it ever happened that way. The rest though, the much larger part, thankfully for all MSU fans actually did happen and is something that we can all remember for a day, a month or most likely even a lifetime.)

James, nicknamed Jimmy by his friends, pushed open the door to his usual Monday evening hangout. The old sports bar down the road, just a couple of miles from his home, had been a refuge now for many years. He loved the worn down feel of it as its looks basically hadn‘t changed much since the nineties. This wasn‘t a big modern place with flatscreen TVs, hot waitresses and technological devices for ordering, it was just a plain, rugged bar where men could be men and sports were still a religion. Something mystical. Jimmy had spent countless hours at the place over the years, watching games, talking sports and downing a few pints. Whenever he felt good, he went there. Whenever he felt sad, he went there. Whenever he didn‘t feel anything, you get the story. Especially the Monday evening was holy to him. His wife and kids were out of the house with other obligations and he always met up with Dean, his old friend from college. They both went to Michigan State University and were huge college basketball fans.

Dean was already sitting at the far corner of the bar, their favorite spot, when Jimmy entered the place. This Monday they greeted each other even more cheerfully than usual as the Spartans had just clinched a share of the Big Ten regular season title two days ago and did so at the expense of their most bitter rivals, the Michigan Wolverines. All during their first drink Dean and Jimmy discussed the game which featured another great Cassius Winston performance, a fitting senior send off for Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, a raucous crowd and countless other wonderful moments. Both guys had seen a lot of Michigan State wins and success in their lifetime but just like it was on all those occasions before, the most recent one was always the sweetest.

It didn‘t take the two men long though to change their discussion onto what‘s ahead for MSU basketball. It is March, that magical month for every college basketball fan. A month that has been so good to the green and white for so many years, even if the most recent versions of March Madness left something to be desired. As Dean and Jimmy guided their conversation to potential seeding scenarios and the budding return of Nick Ward, they soon started to recall their greatest March memories in the Izzo era. They let the barkeeper know that they would sit there a while, texted their wives and on they went.

Jimmy: Do you still remember the day Izzo was hired?

Dean: No, not really, that was a bit before my time. We kids had other stuff to do during the nineties than watch every college basketball game of our favorite team. But I really started to get engaged when Michigan State became good. Like when Antonio Smith was on the block. If I ever needed a guy to get a rebound to save my life, I‘d probably choose him.

Iowa St v Mich St X Cleaves Getty Images

Jimmy: Tom Izzo would agree with you, he loves the guy. I still recall the days when the Flint-Stones became a thing and how they went on that Tourney run in 1999, getting everything started. They played Kentucky in the Elite Eight and were trailing early, it kind of seemed the moment was too big for them. But then they went to work in the second half. I heard the guys on that team talk about how Smith challenged all of them at halftime, thinking that they played soft. They certainly didn‘t in that second half. It actually started in the first with Mateen Cleaves hitting a big time three at the buzzer. He then had just an incredible touchdown pass to Andre Hutson in the second to put MSU up by one.

Dean: Yeah, and UK was the defending champion that year. It was kind of a fitting start to Izzo‘s March career, wasn‘t it? Taking down the champs to kick start your own dominance. It‘s just too bad that Antonio wasn‘t on the team the year after that and couldn‘t win that National Championship with the other guys.

Jimmy: To me he was still on that team, his spirit was. And he was actually there on the day of the final in Indianapolis and Izzo brought him up to the stage. What a special moment. It kind of let people know what an unbelievable guy Tom Izzo is and how much he cares for his players.

Dean: I think Jim Nantz had it right when he opened up the broadcast saying that he felt it was gonna be a special night. Oh how right he was.

Jimmy: Yeah, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer were always doing the games then.

Dean: Damn right. The tournament run alone was already special. They were down 14 against Syracuse and came back, then Morris Peterson had 20 points and seven rebounds against Wisconsin in that semifinal bloodbath with Wisconsin.

Jimmy: Geez, that wasn‘t a game for teaching offense. 53-41, wasn‘t it?

Dean: I believe so.

Jimmy: The final certainly was a storybook ending. I spent the entire game on the edge of my seat but the team was ready to go from the first minute on. Everyone remembers the Willis Reed moment with Mateen but there was so much more.

Dean: That Teddy Dupay kid made one dirty play but karma was on our side. I still remember the buzz in the arena when they showed Mateen walking in the hallways on the jumbotron. He looked like a prize fighter entering a heavyweight bout. Just awesome, awesome moments!

Jimmy: I still see Cleaves‘ mom, Mo Pete‘s mom and all the other families cheering in the stands. MSU always has such a great family presence in the stands, I love that about the deep Tourney runs. My favorite play probably is Peterson pointing to his mother after an and one fastbreak layup. We annihilated that full court press for most of the day.

Wisconsin v Michigan St Getty Images

Dean: As a fan you just have to be thankful for witnessing such a success in your lifetime, most don‘t get to see such a big moment.

Jimmy: Cheers to that! And to think we came back the next year too with Zach Randolph and those guys, just incredible. The one thing I remember about that Tournament was the Elite Eight game versus John Chaney‘s Temple team at the Georgia Dome. They were an 11 seed and David Thomas had his shining moment. I think he averaged 4.8 points per game that year and they kept leaving him open on his way to scoring 19 points. What‘s your favorite moment about 2005 and the next Final Four team?

Dean: Damn, there were so many. That particular run felt so special because the team kind of underachieved all year, the senior class was heavily criticized at times and they were only a 5 seed in March. I mean think of all the NBA players they had – Mo Ager, Shannon Brown, Paul Davis, Alan Anderson. But what they did during the second weekend of the Tournament in Texas was tremendous, taking down Duke and Kentucky back to back.

Jimmy: Yeah, there is a famous story that Tom Izzo broke all regular season tapes with a sledgehammer after an opening round Big Ten Tournament loss to Iowa. I mean talk about drama.

Dean: It certainly worked so no complaints from me.

Jimmy: Yes, seeing Izzo beating Coach K with a loaded team was awesome. That was J.J. Redick‘s junior year when he won National Player of the Year. He played alongside some tough guards like Derrick Dockery and Daniel Ewing who later played for the Clippers. And inside they had big Shelden Williams.

Dean: Until Paul Davis fouled him out with a big time pump fake. It was a three point game at the time and this just sealed it for us. The greatest play of that game of course was that dunk by Maurice Ager, posterizing J.J. Redick. Just awesome!

Jimmy: Yeah, Alan Anderson threw a beautiful bounce pass all over the court. He also knocked down three huge three pointers in the second half, after never being a great deep shooter. That team was just so much fun to watch with Brown and Ager on the wings. They could be deadly with their full court press and really aggressive defense, always getting steals and then running like hell. And you had guys like Matt Trannon from the football team and walk on Tim Bograkos contributing. Bograkos actually played nine minutes against Duke and he was defending Redick down the stretch. He even forced him into a turnover with something like two minutes to go.

Michigan State v Kentucky Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Dean: Just incredible. And then we had the game won against UK but had to go to overtime as Patrick Sparks hit that buzzer beater. I think I collapsed when that bounced in.

Jimmy: Yeah, but Shannon Brown was just unconscious during the game, I think he made eight of ten shots for 24 points. They trailed early in the first OT but just battled and battled and battled. Then in the second OT Paul Davis rose for that big follow slam and Anderson then sealed it at the line.

Dean: That game certainly took a few years off my lifetime, I think.

Jimmy: Same for me.

Dean: Too bad we couldn‘t beat UNC after that but I mean it‘s hard when you play guys who just practice and don‘t go to class. Same thing in 2009.

Jimmy: Absolutely but I don‘t even acknowledge these things. For me 2009 was just about so many great memories with the Final Four being at Ford Field and the team igniting the entire city of Detroit, giving hope and cheering thousands upon thousands up for a few weeks. I‘ve talked to a lot of people about it, how important it was to them and I‘ll never forget that.

Dean: That Tournament was just full of incredible moments as well. I mean it just felt like a team of destiny.

Jimmy: They played USC and everyone was raving about their athletisism with Demar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett. And then Travis Walton knocks down midrange jumper after midrange jumper on his way to 18 points. He scored more points in this game than he had in all the other Tourney games. What a leader. There were always so many different guys stepping up for that team – Draymond Green was coming on, Goran Suton was incredible and of course Delvon Roe.

NCAA Final Four: Michigan State Spartans v Connecticut Huskies Photo by Rich Clarkson-Pool/Getty Images

Dean: Loved him, what a tough kid he was. Nobody gave them a chance against Louisville with Terrance Williams and Earl Clark. Then they just took apart Pitino‘s full court press in the Elite Eight and yet still nobody expected them to beat UConn.

Jimmy: Kalin Lucas was tremendous in that game as was Raymar Morgan. Nothing beats Durrell Summers rising over the Stanley Robinson though for the dunk with about five minutes left. I heard people say that the ground was shaking after that.

Dean: What‘s your favorite moment of the 2010 run?

Jimmy: It has to be Korie Lucious knocking down the buzzer beater against Maryland and Greivis Vasquez out in Spokane. Amazing shot, thank god that Delvon Roe ducked underneath it.

Dean: Then they took out cinderella Northern Iowa and a strong Tennessee team coached by Bruce Pearl. These Spartans teams were just so incredibly tough and went through so many close games. Against the Volunteers Raymar Morgan iced the game with a late free throw, I was so happy for him.

Jimmy: Too bad the refs swallowed their whistle against Butler.

Dean: Don‘t speak of that!

Jimmy: Sorry, forget what I said. Let‘s rather talk about 2014 when Adreian Payne had record 41 points in the first round of the Tournament. He had that incredible connection with little Lacey Holsworth who was fighting cancer. It was such a heart warming yet also such a sad story. I literally cried when that team couldn‘t get all the way to the Final Four.

Dean: Another moment I will never ever forget. His senior night was special.

Jimmy: Did you expect the 2015 team to make it to the Final Four?

Dean: I hoped but I never expected it. Again, they did so well when nobody did give them a real chance. Travis Trice was amazing in that Tournament, he really put the team on his back along with Branden Dawson. He had that amazing rebound against Louisville in Syracuse where he caught the ball in the air, turns around and knocks it down, all in one motion. One of the most athletic plays I‘ve ever seen to be honest.

Jimmy: Yeah, that group was a lot of fun to watch. They needed two comebacks against Buddy Hield‘s Oklahoma team and then against the Cardinals. But they also blew a big lead in regulation against Pitino‘s squad, thankfully Mangok Mathiang missed that late free throw. Marvin Clark had some big moments in that game, too.

Dean: Just thinking about all those amazing games is incredible. I tell you, nothing beats a deep Final Four run.

Jimmy: I agree with you. Let‘s hope this year‘s team has one in them as well. With Langford out I bet not a lot of people expect MSU to go all the way.

Dean: You‘ll never know. I vote for Nick Ward knocking down a buzzer beater three to get us to the Final Four. That would be something.

Both men laughed, raised their glasses and emptied their beers. At that moment the barkeeper walked up to them. In his hands he held a big folder which he put on the bar in front of his two guests. „I couldn‘t help but listen to some of your conversation. I‘m a huge MSU fan myself,“ said the gritty looking man. „You might enjoy a peak at this one here.“ Jimmy and Dean opened the folder and found a gigantic collection of newspaper articles, all of them dealing with Michigan State Tournament runs. They dived into the old stories once more and read countless of historic quotes. They pointed out some of their favorites:

“The magic is back at Michigan State.” - Jim Nantz 1999 as MSU went to the Final Four

“They would have had to cut off my leg to keep me out of this game.” - Mateen Cleaves on his injury during the NCAA Final 2000

“I only knew tears from funerals back home but on that stage after the game for the first time in my life tears felt good.” - Mateen Cleaves after the National Championship

“We knew there was only one more chance, especially for the class of seniors. It takes a lot to get to a Final Four.” - Paul Davis after the Final Four run 2005

“At Michigan State we don‘t win games. We win weekends.” - Tom Izzo 2009

“We didn‘t just have good players or great fans or senior leadership. We had something else: We had Izzo.” - Delvon Roe about the 2009 Tournament

“It was worth every needle and every dose of medicine that I took – that‘s why we play the game, a chance to be on a Final Four team, a chance to win championships.” - Delvon Roe after retiring 2011

“Just give me two hours. And you‘re going to have 50, 60, 70 years of memories. Two hours. Can you sacrifice and reach down and give me two hours so you can have memories for you, your family, your kids and your kids‘ kids.” - Tom Izzo in the locker room before the Elite Eight 2015

After going through the entire folder Jimmy and Dean had another drink, tipped the barkeeper extra well and then left into the cold night. Both went home thinking about everything that‘s been and hoped for everything that is to come. They both went to sleep knowing that as a college basketball fan, especially one of the Michigan State Spartans, there is no time better than the month of March.