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. For the previous game recaps in this series, you can find the full list here.
Today brings us to Coach Izzo’s best win in the Elite 8 of games played on Sunday. Fun fact, of Tom Izzo’s 22 tournament appearances, 10 of those make it to at least the Elite 8. That means that 36 percent of the time, Izzo is coaching his team in the third to last game of the tournament. Now unlike Saturday, there is actually quite a bit of competition for this game selection. In fact, since we all know Tom Izzo has the nation’s best eight final four appearances since his first in 1999, and that only one Elite 8 win has occured on Saturday, there are in fact seven games to choose from for this win.
Of Coach Izzo’s Elite 8 wins, certainly last year’s win over Duke comes to mind. It certainly does for me given I was lucky enough to attend:
The 2015 overtime win over Louisville, or the 2009 win over Louisville for that matter might be ones you think of. Then there is the 1999 win over Kentucky, though I doubt many would find the 2001 win over Temple jumping to the top of the list. However, when it came down to it, the 2005 double-overtime thriller topping Kentucky wins the day for this list.
Other fun fact, Michigan State has faced Kentucky four times in the NCAA Tournament. All four of those times have come in the Elite 8 round. MSU owns a 3-1 record in those games, winning in 1957, 1999, and 2005. Their only loss was in 1978.
So with that fun historical note covered, let’s get into the recap!
The bracket for the Final Four in Saint Louis has already been set for three teams by the time this game tips. Perhaps the most crazy Elite 8 weekend in the modern tournament’s history is about to have its wildest finish yet. Only once in the tournament’s history had two regional final games gone to overtime, and that was in 1992.
Cue up 2005: it has already seen two overtime finishes for the Louisville Cardinals and Illinois Fighting Illini to punch their tickets, and the North Carolina Tar Heels narrowly beat out the Wisconsin Badgers for the third spot. It all comes down to the No. 5 seed Michigan State Spartans and the No. 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats wrapping up the south region in Austin, Texas. Kentucky historically was 2-0 in the state of Texas in NCAA Tournament games, both times seeing the season end with a national title.
The Spartans finished second in the Big Ten at 13-3, behind first place Illinois at 15-1 and ahead of third place 11-5 Wisconsin. They promptly lost their first game in the conference tournament to Iowa in the quarterfinals, 71-69. MSU beat Iowa in their sole regular season game in Iowa City 75-64. They earned the five seed in the south, beating out Old Dominion, Vermont, and Duke to advance to the Elite 8 match-up with Kentucky. The Spartans lost in the first round in 2004, but had made it to the Elite 8 in 2003 before falling to Texas.
Kentucky, coached by Tubby Smith at the time, won the SEC East with a 14-2 record. Florida was in second at 12-4, while Alabama and LSU finished at 12-4 in the West. The Wildcats made the SEC title game before falling to Florida. They beat Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Utah to advance to the Elite 8.
Michigan State came into this with one of my favorite roster make-ups of the Izzo era, if not one I look at as the most talented assembled. An upperclassmen group criticized most of their career as “soft” and “weak” consisted of players like Kelvin Torbert, Alan Anderson, Chris Hill, and Tim Bograkis who kept the Final Four senior class streak alive. Then you have players like Paul Davis, Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown, Drew Neitzel, Drew Naymick, and of course football player Matt Trannon.
As for the game, the Spartans struggled in the first half, trailing 37-33 at the half. However, they made a huge run in the second half. As the clock started to wind down to the final minutes, a Torbert block and corresponding basket on offense with 5:25 to go gave MSU a 70-62 lead. However, Kentucky rallied with multiple three-pointers with less than two minutes remaining to make it a one point game.
With less than a minute in regulation, the Kentucky team had a scare when Ramel Bradley collided with Alan Anderson, and hit the court hard. He had to be helped off the court and was taken straight to the locker room where he was diagnosed with a concussion. He later returned to the bench with a bandage on his chin prior to the start of the first overtime. Patrick Sparks subbed in for Bradley, but missed the front end of a one-and-one with 27.1 seconds left.
Shannon Brown managed to push the Spartans lead to 75-72 with 19.8 seconds left after hitting a set of free throws. Now comes time for the absolutely crazy ending to regulation.
Kentucky got the ball down the court and started a wild series of shots to try and tie the game to send it to overtime. Sparks missed a 3-pointer, then Kelenna Azubuike got the rebound and dribbled to the right corner, only to miss another. The rebound went all the way to Sparks near the top of the key and his shot hung on the rim and then fell in after time expires.
Sparks clearly got the shot off during regulation, but the officiating crew proceeded to take over five minutes to review all the angles to ensure Sparks shot was from behind the three line. Meanwhile Coach Izzo stood ready with his clipboard getting ready for overtime. He later said he figured the basket counted and didn’t care to wait for the review. “Now let’s beat them a second time,” he barked into the huddle.
Kentucky opened the first overtime with a four point run to take a 79-75 lead, but couldn’t sustain it. MSU tied it back up at 81 with 1:03 left on a Maurice Ager free throw (missing the other). Kentucky would never gain a lead again in the game after that. The Wildcats maintained possession of the ball for the remainder of the first overtime, but couldn't get more than one shot off. Azubuike managed to get a bad shot off as the shot clock was about to expire, and the Spartans knocked the rebound out of bounds keeping possession for Kentucky.
“As soon as I got it, I should’ve shot it,” Azubuike said. “But I tried to create space with my dribble and time ran out.”
With :20 seconds left in the first overtime, Kelvin Torbert stood at half-court and screamed “Let’s go” to the team, and they managed to deny Kentucky a shot attempt for the rest of the first overtime.
As for the second overtime, the Spartans finally pulled away for the 94-88 win. They clinched their first win in the NCAA in a double-overtime game. Previously the Spartans lost 85-84 in double-overtime of the second round to Utah in 1991. 1957 is the only game that has seen triple-overtime, a 74-70 loss to North Carolina. No true Spartan concedes the 1986 overtime loss to Kansas as valid no matter what the record books claim, so the Spartans are 2-1 in overtime games in the NCAA. One is the 76-70 2015 Elite 8 win over Louisville. The others are both from 1990, a first round 75-71 win over Murray State, and yet another game of MSU being cheated out by lack of replay in a Sweet 16 81-80 loss to Georgia Tech.
Michigan State was led by sophomore Shannon Brown who scored 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting off five 3-pointers. Maurice Ager added 21 points for the Spartans, while Paul Davis added 15 points and notched a double-double with 11 rebounds.
Randolph Morris led Kentucky with 20 points and Hayes had 16 points and five rebounds. Sparks had 15 points as well, all on 3-pointers.
That does it for our look back at the best second weekend wins during the Tom Izzo era. Next up will be the Final Four and Championship game next weekend. I bet none of you can guess what the title game win pick will be! Be sure to come back to check that out.
In the meantime, it’s time to celebrate another “Victory for MSU!”