After watching this team up close over the last three days, the one word that keeps coming back to mind is resilience. This team has a resolve that is possibly unmatched by any MSU basketball team Tom Izzo has had. No matter what gets thrown at them, they keep coming, and they keep winning. This weekend was the perfect display of that resolve.
Banged up, bruised, and battered, the Spartans willed themselves to victory. Walking boots, scooters, crutches, bandaging, wraps, were the accessories the Spartans sported throughout the weekend. When it was all over, they added pieces of the United Center netting and championship hats to their wardrobe.
There was perhaps no better example of this than Kyle Ahrens. The redshirt junior, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, went down in the first half of Sunday’s championship game in a heap after landing awkwardly on his left foot. There were screams of agony, followed by tears.
The tears came not only from Ahrens, but from many of his teammates, and coaches as well. This incredible photo of Izzo and Ahrens shows only a glimpse of the emotion of the moment.
Tom Izzo consoles Kyle Ahrens. pic.twitter.com/KgGKoH7QaQ— Mike Mulholland (@mulho2mj) March 17, 2019
While the training staff worked on Ahrens on the ground, his teammates started to break down. They know how much he has been through and how hard he has worked. Ahrens has played the majority of the season with a nagging back injury, one that has made his playing status a perpetual game-to-game situation. In fact, Izzo said following Saturday’s win that Ahrens was likely to “give them zero” on Sunday due to the injury.
In fact Ahrens gave everything he had left. He started the game in the tunnel on a stationary bike, unable to even sit on the bench for fear of his back tightening up. When Izzo called his number to enter the game, Ahrens came racing down the tunnel, tearing off his warm-ups and immediately checking into the game. Then he came down the court and buried a three-pointer on his first shot of the game.
Those would be the only points of the day for Ahrens, but in a game that was tied with under a minute to play, they were just as big as any others.
Kyle Ahrens would leave the game on a stretcher, his foot placed into a temporary cast. Before he left, every single one of his teammates gave him a hug, many in tears. Josh Langford wheeled himself onto the court with his scooter, his own walking boot on, to console his teammate, giving him and hug and then a kiss on the head as Ahrens headed back to the locker room area.
It was a truly incredible and emotional scene, and one that highlights one of this team’s greatest strength. Their closeness to each other is special. This team plays for each other because that is who they care about.
Once the game was over, and it was time for the nets to be cut, Matt McQuaid climbed the ladder, took the scissors, turned around and yelled to Ahrens, “Arnie! Arnie! This is for you!” He took the first piece of netting and gave it to his injured teammate, because that’s who and what mattered most. McQuaid had just set a career high in scoring to help win the Big Ten Tournament against hated rival Michigan, and all he could think of was his teammate.
It is that camaraderie that I believe gives this team their resiliency. They know that everyone on that bench has their back, no matter what. Josh Langford goes down, Aaron Henry steps up and becomes a two way player. Kenny Goins turns into a three-point scoring threat. Nick Ward gets hurt and Xavier Tillman comes in and dominates inside in his absence. Kyle Ahrens goes down again, and every teammate is there to pick him up, in this case literally, as they helped him onto the stage for the postgame celebration.
Just look at the last three days in Chicago. Each day it was a different story for MSU. On Friday it was Foster Loyer having his best game yet, scoring 14 points and giving the team a huge lift with Winston on the bench.
The next day it was the starters carrying the load, scoring all but two points in a win over Wisconsin.
And on Sunday, it was Matt McQuaid going off for a career high 27 points, keeping a promise to his best friend, Kyle Ahrens.
This Spartan team can beat you in so many ways. They can play pretty basketball with the ball moving exactly where it is supposed to in order to get the best shot. They can grind it out and be tough and physical. They can beat you on the fast break, and lock you down defensively. And they do it all because they play together, and for each other.
The joy of the win Sunday was cut somewhat short for Spartan fans as they quickly saw MSU pop up as the two seed in the East bracket, opposite of top overall seed Duke. Many fans and analysts, myself included, cried foul. Did the incredible comeback win over Michigan even matter?
Yes, it did. It mattered to the guys that cared the most. To the people on the stage at center court in the United Center it mattered a lot. And you know what, that means more than any tournament seeding.
I also firmly believe that the feeling that they were slighted will only fuel this team further. Cassius Winston seems to play best when he’s angry. This team has shown time and time again that they should never be counted out, and it would seem foolish to start doing so now.
The post-season shirts for Michigan State this year say “Family” across the front. That is the perfect slogan for this team. They are a family, and they stick together. This team deserves a deep NCAA Tournament run, and I can think of no better way for this team’s journey to end than in Minneapolis, even if half of them are on crutches or scooters, or wearing casts or bandages.
Spartans Will. And these Spartans have the will.