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Parallel University: March Madness, The Final Four

This should have been Final Four Weekend. And, we all know who should have won.

This architectural rendering shows how Mercedes-Benz Stadium would have looked for the Final Four.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Under normal circumstances, this weekend would have been a celebration of college sports. This weekend and the Monday that followed should have been the culmination of what in my eyes is the greatest annual sporting event: the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.

But, these are not normal circumstances.

While sports everywhere are currently on hold, it is fun to imagine a Universe where COVID-19 never existed, and where this weekend in Atlanta, the Final Four went ahead as planned. In that subset of universes, the final game was just played. In the one specific universe that I have been covering over the past month, this is how things played out.

National Semifinals

In the first game of the evening, the result was

No. 5 Ohio State defeated No. 8 Saint Mary’s College, 67-64

The Buckeye led throughout, but the Gaels refused to go away. Ohio State needed a stop with five seconds left, follow by some clutch free throws to seal the win. OSU advanced to the Title Game on Monday night.

In the second game of the evening on Saturday night, it went like this:

MSU had already beaten Maryland twice this year (once in College Park and once in the Big Ten tournament), and MSU perhaps should have beaten them in their first meeting in Breslin, if it hadn’t been for Maryland’s late three-point barrage. But, if there was any doubt which of the Big Ten co-champs was the better team, tonight’s game put that thought to rest.

MSU absolutely dominated from start to finish, led by the strong front-court performances of Xavier Tillman and Malik Hall. X led all scorers with 25 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the floor and a perfect 7-for-7 from the charity stripe. Tillman added nine rebounds, an assist, and two blocks. Meanwhile, Hall added eight points and five rebounds.

Despite the domination on the score board, there were some tense moments. MSU got off to a strong start, and led 14-3 early, but Winston picked up his second foul 10 minutes into the game and Coach Izzo decided to sit Cash as MSU had a 10-point lead.

Watts played the point and MSU kept Maryland at arms length... until Watts also picked up his second foul on a loose ball scramble with a little over five minutes left in the first half. Coach Izzo then elected to put in Loyer... and Maryland quickly cut the lead to just five points.

After a fiery timeout, Izzo elected to keep Loyer in the game, and he responded. In the closing two minutes, Loyer hit a three from the top of the key off a Tillman screen, and then on the next possession, made a beautiful pass to X for a dunk.

After a Maryland drive to basket and bucket with under 10 seconds, Loyer got the outlet pass, dribbled to the top of the key, and calmly drained another three as time expired in the half. MSU led 39-28 at the break and Maryland would not cut the lead to below 10 points for the rest of the game.

Winston eventually put up nine points on 4-for-10 shooting, but was only 1-for-4 from three with four assists. Watts had a solid game, scoring 11 points, including going 3-for-5 from three. Henry was a bit quiet, but did contribute seven points and six rebounds.

Brown chipped in five points off the bench. Kithier had four points and Arhens had four. MSU shot 46 percent overall from the field, including 8-for-24 (33 percent) from deep. The real story of the game, however, was MSU smothering defense, which held the Terps to only 60 points.

In the end:

No. 2 Michigan State blew out No. 4 Maryland, 77-60

MSU moved on the game Monday night to face another Big Ten foe, Ohio State, for all of the marbles.

National Title Game

The game was an absolute battle from start to finish.

Both teams played outstanding defense throughout and struggled early offensively, but the Buckeyes went on a brief spurt early and led 16-8 at the under 12 minute timeout of the first half. With Rocket Watts struggling with the deep ball, Izzo elected to once again give Loyer a shift as Winston rested for a few minutes.

As he did on the previous game against Maryland, Foster started by calmly hitting a three, MSU’s first of the game, just after he checked in to help cut into the Buckeye lead. Loyer would go on to score just five-points, but this play seemed to spark the Spartans.

Over the next few possession, both teams traded a few baskets and Ohio State maintained a 26-22 lead with under four minutes to play in the first half. In the closing minutes of the first stanza, the action suddenly cranked up a notch. Cash hit his first three of the game, but it was answered at the other end with a three from OSU’s Washington.

Tillman got steal for a breakaway dunk off an errant pass, but then MSU failed to get back on defense (one of the few defensive breakdowns of the game) and gave up a dunk to Kaleb Wesson. Gabe Brown hit a three in transition, but OSU scored again on a drive to the hoop by Muhammed. By the close of the first half, MSU trailed 38-35.

Throughout the game, MSU’s starting guards were outstanding. In the first half, MSU seemed to fall in love with the three pointer, and it did not go well. For the game, MSU only shot 6-for-22 from downtown (27 percent) including only 1-of-6 from Rocket Watts.

In the second half, however, MSU was able to get into the lane, and while OSU’s defense was stout, MSU’s guards found ways to score. Winston wound up finishing with a team high 17 points, on 7-of-10 shooting (including 2-of-3 from downtown) and three assists, but he did struggle with turn-overs, committing six total.

Watts contributed 15 points, mostly due to his perfect 6-for-6 shooting on two-point mid-range floaters and drives to the hoop. Aaron Henry, meanwhile, put up 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting (and 1-of-3 from deep). Gabe Brown also contributed five points off the bench on 2-for-5 shooting (1-of-3 from deep) and in addition grabbed four rebounds.

MSU’s bigs didn’t fare quite so well in the final box score. Tillman wound up with just eight points on 2-for-5 shooting, as he drew digs and double teams most of the night. However, he compensated with several excellent passes for buckets, which earned him six assists. He also was his normal dominant defensive self and owned the board, securing 13 rebounds.

As for the rest of MSU’s front-court, Bingham scored only two points, but did contribute four rebounds. Kithier had a three-point play on an offensive rebound for his only points, but also grabbed five total rebounds. Hall struggled again with fouls and only managed a single point and a single rebound in limited minutes.

The second half was a back and forth war. MSU took a brief 41-40 lead (their first of the game) just before the under 16-minute timeout, but by the time the clock dipped to below eight minutes, OSU was clinging to a 57-53 lead. MSU then proceeded to go on a 9-to-2 run to take the lead back, 62-59 with just under four minutes to play.

But, MSU then had two empty possessions in a row as Watts tried (and missed) yet another three and Henry had a contested jumper in the lane blocked. Meanwhile the Wesson brothers scored on back-to-back plays: a rare successful post-up basket from Kaleb, followed by a three from Andre. Suddenly, OSU led 64-62 with two minutes to play.

On the next possession, Cash made a beautiful post feed to Tillman. While X didn’t score, he did get fouled. He calmly sunk both to tie up the score at 64 all. The teams then traded baskets on slashing drives to the hoop, the first by Liddell of Ohio State and the second by Cash. With less than a minute remaining, the game was tied, 66 all.

Ohio State then went to their go-to guy. Kaleb Wesson received a pass in the post on a clear out and worked to get around Tillman. X played outstanding defense and blocked his eventual shot, but was whistled for a foul. Izzo went nuts on the bench and almost drew a technical foul. The replay showed minimal contact. But, Wesson only converted one of the two shots to take a give OSU a 67-66 lead. Ball don’t lie...

On MSU’s final possession, Izzo drew up a play to get Cassius open, but OSU doubled him hard, forcing a dish to Henry on the wing. Aaron dribbled along the baseline and initially looked like he had a clear path to the hoop. But, OSU recovered quickly and deflected Henry’s mid-range attempt to retake the lead. Fortunately, Tillman got the offensive rebound and called a time out with 12 seconds left on the clock.

For the final play, Izzo draw up a familiar one. MSU went pick and roll with who else? Cash and X. With his signature yo-yo dribble, Cash made it all the way to the hoop, but he didn’t shoot it. He instead and lobbed the ball up in air off the backboard. In past plays, Tillman would have been there to dunk the ball home.

But on this night, X acted as the decoy and instead, in was Aaron Henry who sprinted from the right wing as the ball left Winston’s hand, elevated, and dunked the ball home with 2 seconds left on the clock.

With no time outs remaining, Ohio State in-bounded the ball and got it to mid-court in time for a desperation half-court shot, which fell well short. MSU’s bench cleared, they were National Champions, once again. The game was a final:

No. 2 Michigan State beat No. 5 Ohio State, 68-67

In the end, MSU made the plays that mattered to secure the program’s third National Title and Izzo’s second. In the post-game celebration, MSU’s biggest stars dedicated the win to two members of the MSU family that weren’t present, at least in body. Coach Izzo dedicated the win to Jud, while the Final Four’s MOP, Cassius Winston, dedicated it to his brother, Zachery.

For completeness, the final 2020 NCAA Tournament bracket from our favorite parallel universe is shown here:

While this ending to season is just a fairy tale from a parallel universe, it’s the one that MSU fan’s deserve. For me, this was a fun and therapeutic way to mourn the loss of my most beloved sporting event. I hope that it could provide each of you with perhaps a little bit of excitement and joy in these difficult times.

While our world is currently upside down, this too shall pass. Some day, hopefully sooner rather than later, the sports that we love will return, and we will appreciate them even more. Until then, peace and health to us all, and Go Green.