Given Tom Izzo as the Michigan State Spartans head coach has 22 straight years in the NCAA tournament and 52 wins in that time frame, there are a lot of games to look back at over his career. So I decided we could all use a fun debate over what his best win each day of the tournament was through each round (note I am going by day, not just round, so today is the best win in a first round game played on Friday only, and tomorrow will be the best win played on Saturday in the first round). If you didn’t read the best win of Thursday first round matchups, then be sure to do so here.
Perhaps this game has a mix of recency bias and higher profile opponent name for why I picked it. Also factoring in I am sure is the fact a co-worker at the office I worked in at the time was a Georgia grad, that office was full of SEC and Big XII fans, and I don’t look back on it with happy memories. Either way, in the 2015 NCAA tournament the seventh seeded Michigan State Spartans rolled into their Friday afternoon first round matchup against the tenth seeded Georgia Bulldogs and battled it out for the hard fought win.
MSU finished third in the Big Ten behind the second place Maryland Terrapins and first place Wisconsin Badgers. They entered the first round game in Charlotte, NC coming off an overtime loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship game that past Sunday. In contrast, Georgia was making their first tournament appearance since 2011 after a fourth place finish in the SEC and a 60-49 semifinal loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks in the SEC Conference Tournament.
After a lackluster start that saw MSU tied at 14 after a Tum-Tum layup with 10:14 left in the first, the Spartans finished the half off strong enough. From there Michigan State closed out the half on a 21-8 run to take a 35-22 lead at halftime.
However, the second half did not see much relief for a MSU fans’ heart health.
Despite holding a thirteen point lead at the half, Georgia managed to go on a run that saw a one score game of 39-37 with 14:09 left. Yes, MSU managed just four points in the second half for over seven and a half minutes of game play. Finally, a Bryn Forbes jumper with 12:22 to go in the game sparked a 19-8 run by Michigan State to take back their double-digit lead. Among the highlights of that run, this Branden Dawson clip is worth a watch:
However, this still wasn’t enough to safely put the game away. Despite a 12 point lead after a Denzel Valentine layup off a Dawson assist with 2:09 to go, Georgia started a furious comeback starting with a set of free throws by Cameron Forte at the 1:16 mark. After an 11-2 run by the Bulldogs, the score sat at 66-63 MSU in the lead with just 21 seconds left. The game would end with Denzel Valentine making six straight free throws, a Dawson rebound, and a Dawson block leading to a Valentine rebound to seal the seven point win over Georgia, 70-63.
Michigan State got a big game score wise out of Valentine and Trice, with a huge comeback in the second half performance wise by Dawson after missing most of the first half with fould trouble in order to get this win. Valentine led the team both in scoring with 16 points, and tied for assists with 6. His scoring was highlighted by his clutch 6-6 from the free throw line, all of which came late in the game. He also grabbed six rebounds, good for a tie for second on the team in this one. Travis Trice was second in scoring with 15 points, while tying Valentine for a team high six assists. Costello led the team in rebounds with seven, but scored just two points while fouling out. Dawson had a huge second half to finish first in blocks with two, tied for second in boards with Valentine at six each, and tied third in scoring with Forbes at 14 points each. Forbes, meanwhile, finished three-for-six from three point range, and finished overall from the floor shooting 62.5 percent.
This game gets ranked as Izzo’s top Friday win for me because of the gutsy run it started for the Spartans. As you’re all aware, they went all the way to the Final Four in the 2015 tournament after a season most people wrote them off compared to the 2014 squad that fell just short in the Elite 8 against UConn (*cough, cheaters). They beat a solid, if not overwhelming first round team in Georgia to kick start the run. It had head scratching runs by the Bulldogs, and thrilling moments of dominance by the Spartans. In the end, to be frank, this game won the day of first round Friday matchups for my pick because beating a team like Georgia in the first round just plain feels like a bigger accomplishment than blowing the pants off the likes of Long Island in 2012 or Robert Morris in 2009 for example.
So there you have it for Tom Izzo’s best wins in the first round. Be sure to argue why I made the right or wrong pick in the comments, and check back tomorrow for the best Saturday win of the second round!
Alternative picks for a Friday win by Tom Izzo include:
1999 Mount St. Mary’s 76-53
2001 Alabama State 69-35
2003 Colorado 79-64
2005 Old Dominion 89-81
2009 Rober Morris 77-62
2010 New Mexico St. 70-67
2012 Long Island 89-67
2017 Miami 78-58
2018 Bucknell 82-78