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 second round game played on Saturday only, and tomorrow will be the best win played on Sunday in the second round). If you didn’t read the best win of Thursday first round matchups, then be sure to do so here. Then Friday’s best win is here.
Today’s look back takes us all the way back to Coach Izzo’s very first NCAA tournament season in 1998. After an 83-71 win over the Eastern Michigan Eagles on Thursday in the first round, the fourth seeded Spartans (22-7) faced the fifth seeded Ivy League Princeton Tigers (27-2) coming off of their best season in history to this point. The Tigers came into this game riding a nation’s best active win streak and an all-time school record win streak of 20 games. Princeton was also hoping to be the first Ivy League team to make the Sweet 16 since 1979 when Penn advanced to the second weekend.
The normally hot shooting Tigers to this point of the season faced an aggressive 2-3 zone defense by MSU that extended beyond the top of the key. They also were loud enough warning about picks and cuts that the New York Times felt the need to mention it in their recap of the action. Aggressive guarding on attempted cuts limited Princeton to just one backdoor layup on the game. On top of that, they managed just 25 percent shooting from three with the Spartans jumping out to get a hand in their face, going just 5-for-24 from deep until late in the game. They also went 9-for-18 from the free throw line, including missing four straight to end the game on one and one attempts.
Michigan State set the tone for the game by jumping out to a 10-0 lead to start. Princeton refused to ever be put away, however. The game was just a two point lead for the Spartans at halftime, 33-31. In part, MSU kept the game close in part due to their turnover problems, committing 21 (and we act like that is more a modern Izzo team issue!). Princeton squandered too many of these opportunities in the end. Late in the second half the Spartans committed four straight turnovers on their offensive possession. The Tigers could only manage just two points out of these opportunities to make the score 51-46 with around four minutes left.
After missing a three pointer, two layup attempts (one of which caused the Princeton coach to fling his jacket off in anger/frustration), and a free throw attempt, they finally rimmed a layup in to get their two points. Eventually Princeton managed to tie it up at 54 with 2:01 to play (on a layup following yet another MSU turnover). Michigan State responded with a 7-0 run to put the game on ice and ensure they would advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Morris Peterson drained four free throws surrounding a three pointer by Mateen Cleaves. Both teams would manage two more points apiece for the final score of 63-56.
Sophomore Cleaves had a huge game to lead the Spartans in this one as he scored 27 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished five assists, and managed two steals to lead the team in each category. Though, Cleaves also led the team in turnovers with seven. Andre Hutson was second in scoring for the team with eight points. Antonio Smith and Jason Klein were second on the team in rebounding with five each. Overall, MSU shot 56.4 percent from the floor, and 50 percent from three.
As for Princeton, Steve Goodrich led Princeton with 18 points, while Brian Earl had 15, and Gabe Lewullis 13. Princeton managed just 40 percent shooting from the field. They were out-rebounded 13-38. They did manage 15 steals to just seven turnovers, but couldn’t do anything with the opportunities against that MSU zone.
With the big win over Princeton, the regular season Big Ten Champs advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1990 (let’s not bother reliving that win that was stolen from them by lack of replay). Ever gracious in defeat, the Ivy League team’s starter Mitch Henderson had this to say about the MSU team:
‘’That team is beatable,’’ Henderson said. ‘’They were jumping up and down when they beat us, like they hadn’t won a game in five days or a year. They were doing a lot for the Big Ten champs. They are beat able.’’
And there you have it with Coach Izzo’s best second round win on a Saturday. Sometimes the first is the best, and that was certainly true in this one. Be sure to check back tomorrow for the best Sunday win of the second round!