During his press conference on Saturday before his Michigan State Spartans Elite Eight clash with the Duke Blue Devils Tom Izzo was asked about what a year in college means for potential one and done players, the likes his team was about to face a day later in Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett for example. Izzo looked up and thought about it for a moment. What then followed could be considered almost philosophical, yet probably describes better than anything else what the gigantic win against Duke on their way to the Final Four meant for his own team. “I always talk about that you have certain phases in your life that become memories”, Izzo said. “That‘s kind of what life is about”. Boy, did the Spartans ever make some memories yesterday.
The game turned into one of these contests that you as a basketball fan will remember forever, atleast as a Spartan that is. A true instant classic. It all started with the setting. The NCAA Tournament is the biggest stage the sport of college basketball has to offer, with a berth in the Final Four on the line it became a moment that can define seasons, careers and legacies. Capital One Arena was filled out to the last seat with the green and blue faithful, a raucous crowd whose hopes and dreams rested on two great teams from two amazing programs. Even the days before the game everyone knew it could be a fascinating basketball bout of two contrasting styles, the veteran, experienced MSU team squaring off against the young, super athletic and hyped Blue Devils. That in itself doesn‘t always guarantee a good game, yet what followed yesterday more than lived up to the billing and then some. It was a true heavyweight fight that went the entire distance, with two excellent teams exchanging punch after punch, blow after blow, never backing down, never giving up.
The storylines of Michigan State‘s win yesterday could fill newspapers for weeks and the reading wouldn‘t get boring. You had the All American Cassius Winston leading his team into battle, opposing Duke‘s raw athletisism with an inexhaustible calm and the heart of a lion. Senior and former walk on Kenny Goins hit the biggest shot of his life when he drained a three pointer with just over 30 seconds to go to give MSU the lead for good. Matt McQuaid had a bunch of dazzling plays with a vicious first half slam and a spin-o-rama layup late. Xavier Tillman made one of the loudest plays when he slammed home an and-one-dunk on a fastbreak entering the crunch time. You had an Aaron Henry alley oop, you had other big shots, you had Tom Izzo pumping his fist, you had Magic Johnson in the stands… the number of highlights was just endless, the amount of special moments limitless. In the end it all came together to a perfect night for Michigan State.
While it‘s hard to single out one player it surely is fair to say that MSU wouldn‘t have come close to winning the game yesterday without their leader Cassius Winston. All year long he has put the team on his back and carried them through tough stretches and it was the same story against Duke. When the Blue Devils made a first half run and went up 30-21, a lot of Spartans probably got worried. Winston immediately responded with a run, scoring eight points himself and assisting on five more. Midway through the second half Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson hit back to back threes putting Duke up by four, again danger time for MSU. Winston immediately cut the deficit with a triple on his own. On what proved to be the game winning shot by Kenny Goins, Winston was the player who made it possible (besides one of many tremendous out of bounds play calls from Tom Izzo of course). As a decoy he went into the paint and set a screen on Zion Williamson to free up Goins. With his immediate opponent Tre Jones worried about stopping the Spartans superstar and missing the switch, Goins had all the time and space he needed. It tells a lot about this Spartans group that when, in this big a moment, your best player takes a step back for the greater good and makes a mostly unheralded yet big time winning play away from the ball.
Even with Winston‘s heroics, all the other heroes in green and white and their incredible effort, a huge part of what made the win so special was the opponent. Duke has forever been one of the evil empires in the sport, a team every opposing fan loves to hate, a program who many feel has gotten a lot of unfair advantages throughout the years. But a huge part of all this animosity toward Mike Krzyzewski‘s program is based on their own greatness. We all know the history, the records and the titles, all of that. On top of that they are just good whenever you face them. And this year‘s Duke squad, an extremely athletic group of individuals formed around the superpowers of a giant named Zion Williamson, was no exception, they might even have been one of the most talented outfits Durham has ever produced. It surely has been the most hyped.
What made the victory for Michigan State even that much sweeter wasn‘t just slaying the big bad dragon, it was taking down one of the all time great programs. A program that after the game showed itself as gracious in defeat as any team I can ever recall. Coach K went out of his way to praise the Spartans, his friend Tom Izzo and the entire MSU program. He even forbade a reporter to talk about the future of his players in the postgame press conference out of respect for this game and for this moment. His players from top to bottom, even with NBA glory looming in their immediate future, showed a tremendous amount of class, respect and appreciation for their opponent. Tom Izzo probably said it best when he noted that Duke dealt with the gut wrenching loss as good as any team he‘s seen and that it was “off the charts classy”. The mainstream media often forgets that part when they give you nonstop coverage of young superstars, many of them are great kids that go way beyond the highlights.
Luckily in comparison Michigan State as a program has built itself not only on players but on people and this year‘s team might be one of the best examples for that. It‘s hard not to root for a group of young men who excel far beyond the hardwood and who have shown a resiliency and a heart throughout an injury-riddled campaign that might be unrivaled in their illustrious history. Whenever Tom Izzo steps to the podium, gives a press conference or the camera catches him in a silent moment, you can sense his own admiration for this group and how much it means to him personally right now to have them still dancing. That‘s what character, in the coach and in the players, does – it connects them and forms a bond that can lift them way beyond their own weight. We often heard the term “connected” when Izzo and his players described themselves as a group and for good reason. It is the base for everything they do and without becoming a true team rather than a collection of individuals none of their incredible success would be possible.
That amazing success story didn‘t end yesterday, as great as the win and everything surrounding it was. Tom Izzo described how Cassius Winston‘s mother came up to him right after the game and said that “there are two more wins to get”. On Saturday the next chapter will arise when Michigan State faces the rugged Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Final Four. However that game might go and wherever fate might take these Spartans, last night‘s win will never be taken away from them. It is a memory that all of Spartan Nation will cherish forever and of which people will tell their kids and grandkids about. I already did it this morning when my little six-month old son woke up and was about to voice his displeasure about the early hour and his ended sleep. I told him – still pretty excited I might add – that the Spartans had won and are now going to the Final Four. He immediately gave me his biggest ear to ear smile.
You can be sure that I will tell him the story of yesterday‘s game many more times. That‘s just how it is with great memories...