After coming in with negativity entering the tournament, here’s an ounce of positivity.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has recently improved his abysmal record versus Mike Krzyzewski, winning two of the last three contests, to improve to 3-12. Izzo remained gracious as ever when asked what facing his peer and rival means to him following their victory over Davidson.
But I know he and the players on this roster relish nothing more than seizing the chance to end Coach K’s illustrious career, especially when many of those wins came at MSU’s demise.
And the elder of these Spartans hold something few others before them have ever been able to claim: a victory over Duke, and in the case of senior forward Gabe Brown and senior center Marcus Bingham Jr., two victories over the Blue Devils. Junior forwards Malik Hall and Julius Marble can each recall a victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2020, albeit an empty venue at the time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It felt really good (because) you know, we’re at Duke and I kind of hate Duke,” Marble said after dunking and exclaiming the 75-59 victory.
Leading up to that game, I noticed a tangibly different tone in Izzo’s voice when dissecting the Blue Devils. It seemed that the infamous Elite Eight victory over Zion Williamson and company helped the Spartans conquer their fear of the “aura of Duke.” It definitely showed in MSU’s performance at Cameron.
So, I’m willing to speculate that this group — despite Izzo’s continued criticism that his players lack true leadership — made up of juniors and seniors, do not fear the almighty Blue Devils, because they’ve done it before.
Maybe this notion is worth nothing. In reality, it’ll be seemingly impossible to match-up with and check Paolo Banchero. But I thought it was impossible to ever root against a kid named Paolo (whose dad’s name is also Mario, coincidentally), just as much as I thought it was to guard Williamson and RJ Barrett on the same floor.
Fittingly, Izzo began comparing Marble to Xavier Tillman earlier this season. The Grand Rapids native missed his fair share of dunks, but it was Tillman who put on a defensive masterpiece and finished a program-altering dunk over Javin Delaurier for a three-point play in the Elite Eight’s waning minutes.
Izzo on Marble: "Julius is a tough kid and a smart kid. Those are two good qualities to have." Says he keeps telling the junior forward "Why not Xavier (Tillman)?" as a model for his development curve.— Chris Solari (@chrissolari) February 28, 2022
That was the moment that begun the erosion of the mountain so many Spartans failed to climb, the moment I thought perhaps the Spartans were finally doing it — finally showing the metal ability to defeat college basketball’s elite.
Izzo asked Marble “why not Xavier Tillman?” So why not this team?
“If you’re a good team and a program as good as ours now, you shouldn’t get caught up in the aura of Duke,” Izzo said.