I really hoped to be spending the day today in nervous anticipation of Michigan State playing for the national championship on Monday night. I am sure all of you were as well. Alas it was not to be as the Spartans season came to an end on Saturday night in Minneapolis, one game earlier than we all hoped.
Still, this was one of the more fun and memorable MSU basketball seasons in quite some time, and it was one that really featured some incredible individual and team performances. We will take a look back at the accomplishments in a little bit but first I wanted to reflect a little on the team as a whole.
If had told anyone that follows MSU basketball that this team would lose Langford for the season on the last game before the new year, and Ward for the last couple weeks of the season, the reaction likely would have been something along the lines of “welp there goes the season.” Oh and for good measure Kyle Ahrens is going to spend a large portion of the year dealing with a back injury before wrecking his ankle in the Big Ten Tournament.
And yet this team kept coming. They won damn near everything they set out to win this year, gritting it out and finding a way to win time and time again. They nearly did it on Saturday as well, making another valiant comeback attempt that fell just short as they finally ran out of gas.
All credit in the world to Texas Tech for that performance. Their defense is incredible, and even better when you actually see it for 40 minutes. They hounded the Spartans, contested every shot, took away passing lanes, and were just generally difficult to deal with. And much like what MSU did to so many teams, their defense fueled their offense in the second half, propelling them to a double-digit lead that was just too much to overcome.
But while the season may have ended the way it did, I think every Spartan fan will look back on this season with a fondness that doesn’t always accompany even similarly successful seasons. This team had a toughness and a mentality that really resonated with the fans. They were a team of “every man” type guys that came together and played beautiful basketball for an entire year. And they won, a lot.
So let’s look back on some of the accomplishments of this team, and then we can look ahead to next year.
First the basics. This team won 32 games, tied for the second most in school history. This was the second straight season with 30 wins for Michigan State, just the second time they have accomplished that feat, with the first being the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
They won 16 conference games for the second straight season, tying the school record set last year. Their 32 Big Ten wins over the last two years in the most in back-to-back seasons in school history.
As a result, the Spartans won their second straight Big Ten regular season title, and the ninth Big Ten title for Coach Tom Izzo. The nine titles moves Izzo into third place all-time in Big Ten history, two behind Ward Lambert and Bobby Knight for the top spot.
This is also the third time under Izzo that MSU has won at least two straight Big Ten titles, and the first since 2009 and 2010.
Michigan State beat rival Michigan three times this year, becoming the first school in the rivalry to accomplish the feat. Two of the wins were for Big Ten championships, both the regular season crown, and the conference title.
This is the fourth time that Michigan State has doubled up on Big Ten titles by winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles, and the first time they have done it since 2012.
MSU went to their 10th ever Final Four this year, tying them for the most appearances by a Big Ten team, and the sixth most all-time. For Tom Izzo it was Final Four number eight, which moved him into fifth place all-time, breaking a tie with Rick Pitino. No Big Ten coach has been to more Final Fours.
The Spartans and Izzo also moved up the all-time tournament ranks in total wins. Michigan State now has 69 total NCAA Tournament wins, the most of any Big Ten school, passing Indiana’s 66 wins. They are the sixth winningest program in tournament history.
Izzo himself has 52 of those wins, making him the fifth winningest coach ever in the NCAA Tournament, having passed Jim Calhoun during this year’s run.
How about some individual records, and of course we have to start with Cassius Winston. The Spartan point-guard won the Big Ten Player of the Year award and was named an AP First-Team All-American. And it was well deserved.
Winston set the MSU and Big Ten single season assist record with 292 assists, shattering Mateen Cleaves’ previous mark of 274. He also scored 733 points, the fifth most in a season in school history.
Winston finishes his junior year 21st all-time in scoring in MSU history, and second all-time in assists. He needs 102 assists next year to break Cleaves’ school and conference career record for assists. It took him 14 games to get that many this year so, that feels like a pretty safe bet.
The real question might be whether or not Winston can accomplish something no player in major college basketball has ever accomplished and that is to finish his career with 2000 points and 1000 assists.
Winston would need 285 assists and 589 points next year to get there. That would be a heck of a year, not quite equaling his performance this season, but pretty close. He might not get there, but he is almost certain to become a 2000 point, 900 assist player, something only three other players have ever done.
Kenny Goins came out of nowhere this year to be one of the most important players on the team and wound up hitting the biggest shot of the year to beat Duke and send the Spartans to the Final Four. He was also a monster on the glass for MSU all season. Goins finished the year with 349 rebounds, the 5th most in a single season in MSU history. Outside of Draymond Green’s school record season in 2012, Goins had more rebounds than any Spartan has in a single season since 1960. Not bad for a former walk-on.
Xavier Tillman came on strong down the stretch this year after Nick Ward got hurt and finished with a very nice season. He won the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Award and ended up averaging 10 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He also set the sophomore record for blocks wit 65, breaking the mark set by Ward last season. Those 65 blocks were the third best season in school history trailing only Ken Johnson and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Speaking of blocks, Nick Ward is now second on the career list at Michigan State with 142, having passed Branden Dawson. Only Matt Costello had more with 146 blocks, while wearing the Spartan colors. Should Ward return for his senior season, he will most certainly break that record.
And finally, let’s get the other senior, Matt McQuaid into the mix here. McQuaid finished his career with 194 three-pointers, eighth most in school history. His 492 attempts were the seventh most.
This team was one of the best examples of the sum of their parts being greater than the individual pieces. Sure Cassius Winston is incredible, but without everyone else stepping up around him, they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as they did.
Looking forward we don’t know exactly what the team will look like next year. We know Goins and McQuaid are gone, and Ward possibly could follow them, but everyone else will be back.
This has a lot of the feel of the 1999 team, which returned two big time seniors, including their All-American point guard, but lost a couple big time seniors as well. This team will be deeper, loaded with talented, and hungry to finish what they couldn’t this year, just like the team in 2000 was coming off the previous year.
I am not saying the end result will be the same, but it really couldn’t be set up any better for them. This year was somewhat unexpected that really fun. Next year the team will know they can win it all, and the expectations will be there. And I can’t wait to watch in unfold.