He even smiled and shrugged a few times.
I can’t remember ever seeing him like this after an NCAA Tournament loss. Maybe in 1999 after the Final Four loss to Duke. He took that one really well, as he should have, considering how far he had already taken the program in four years as the head coach. We had no idea how many Final Fours were ahead of him.
When this 98-93 overtime loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden ended, it was as clean of a close loss as Izzo has ever experienced in this great American spectacle of madness.
There were no officials to blame, no bad calls that had a big impact on the game that I can think of. There was a dragged pivot foot here, a phantom foul there, but Michigan State benefited from favorable calls as well. They evened out.
There was no injury to blame. No fatigue. No travel inequalities. There was no lack of hotel ball room space, no New York City traffic jams that robbed Izzo of valuable meeting time with his players, like there was prior to the Elite Eight loss to UConn here in 2014.
There were no players to scapegoat. There were no promises of getting back to brass tacks next year, like Izzo told us in 2005. There were no promises of getting back to running, running, running, like he said after the respectable loss to a loaded North Carolina team in the second round in 2007.
When those two seasons ended, Izzo could not wait to turn the page and get on to the next year.
Izzo had no ill will toward his players. He told media after the game that he was proud of them. He told the players in the locker room afterward that he loved them.
Love, happiness and gratitude after a loss? This is still Izzo, right? Yes it is, and this is still Michigan State basketball, and the tournament leaves memories imprinted on us like rings in a tree stump.
This 2023 ring is different. It wasn’t like getting upset by Middle Tennessee State or Weber State, or Syracuse, or George Mason, when there seemed to be so much potential ahead, but a choke effect had come down on the Spartans.
It wasn’t like the loss to UConn in 2014, leaving us wondering what would have been if Keith Appling had been healthy that day and in the preceding weeks.
UConn went on to win the National Championship. That could have been Michigan State’s National Championship, some of us think.
It wasn’t like the time we wondered – and continue to wonder – what if the officials had called a foul on Butler when Draymond Green tried to score in the post in the final seconds of a two-point loss at the 2010 Final Four to a Bulldog team that came within one shot of winning the National Championship two days later against Mike Kryzyzewski’s weakest national title team ever.
And what if reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas, hadn’t blown out his achilles one week earlier against Maryland?
That could have been Michigan State’s National Championship, some of us think.
I’ll not mention Alan Anderson’s injury prior to the 2005 Final Four.
I’ll not mention Aaron Henry’s foul trouble against Texas Tech at the 2019 Final Four.
So now there’s this one.
Izzo conceded victory with respect for Kansas State, although he lamented what he called a pair of lucky, desperation, banked-in 3-pointers at the end of shot clocks which altered the course of this game.
Usually when Michigan State loses in the Sweet 16, we don’t feel like the Spartans lost a shot at the National Championship. And that most likely won’t be the feeling when this one is all over.
Many observers said this would be the most wide open NCAA Tournament in years, maybe ever. If Alabama goes on to dominate the rest of the field, maybe we won’t look back on this loss to Kansas State with many questions about “what if?”
But Kansas State merely has to beat Florida Atlantic in order to get to what might have been Izzo’s ninth Final Four.
STILL IN CORRETION MODE
Standing outside the locker room a few minutes after this loss, Izzo spoke less about the lost opportunity to move onto the Elite Eight, and more about the ways Kansas State riddled his team. He was still in coach mode, still in correction mode.
There were the back cuts, and the way Markquis Nowell lasered those passes without a hint.
“I think we got mesmerized with Nowell,” Izzo said, “and maybe that was some of the coaching fault.”
We’ve never seen an Izzo team fall for back cuts and surrender them for lay-ups like we saw on this night. His teams usually play air tight on defense, from inside out, especially at this time of year. Sometimes they play too tight on the inside and allow teams to get hot from the outside. That’s by choice, by Izzo’s favored percentages. But never do Izzo’s Spartans allow free access to the rim on quick-trick back cuts like they did on this night.
And it came on a night during which Kansas State ALSO got hot from the outside, and rarely turned the ball over.
Michigan State had to shoot 59 percent in the second half to keep up. And that’s what they did. And that’s why this game became so splendid.
Nowell finished with 20 points – 18, if you don’t count his meaningless lay-up at the buzzer. 15 points, on 5-of-16 shooting, if you don’t count the desperation shovel 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer which tied the game at 55-55 with 12:42 left and helped Kansas State regain momentum after it was lost during Nowell’s brief injury outage.
“The guy had a career night with assists,” Izzo said of Nowell. “He didn’t have a career night shooting the ball.
“The problem is they were making those back cuts. Those are lay-ups and those are his assists. We didn’t cover them well. We made some mental mistakes on that.”
WHERE IT WAS LOST
After Walker gave Michigan State an 87-84 lead on a 3-pointer with 3:28 left in overtime, Kansas State scored on its last six possessions. That’s where they earned this victory. That’s where Izzo second-guesses Michigan State’s coverage, scouting and defensive execution. And there was blame for some players, too. Everyone was in it together.
Four of those last six scoring trips were on ball screen plays, leading to field goals or free throws. One field goal came on a back cut for a dunk, a play which coaches warned the players was probably coming, but AJ Hoggard was an instant late reacting to Nowell’s sneaky quick delivery.
Nowell set an NCAA Tournament record with 19 assists. The thing that is uncommon about his passing is how hard he fires the ball without telegraphing his movements – and he does it with great vision, plus the threat of him pulling up and shooting an NBA 3-pointer at any instant. He can strike like a cobra.
“Nowell was unbelievable,” Izzo said. “We tried different ways to cover him. Our players did a better job on that than I did. We tried to trap him a little bit (on ball screens), we tried to step out and they started slipping us.
“We struggled with our centers getting up and that was one of the problems we had tonight. Mady (Sissoko) has been unbelievable on ball screen defense and we just struggled a little bit tonight.
“But part of the struggle was he (Nowell) is good enough. Part of the struggles is they hit some shots that I don’t think they normally hit.
“But they are good, too. That’s a good basketball team and they deserved the win.”
No pain. Not yet anyway.
“I’m kind of numb to it,” Izzo admitted afterward.
He sounded less like the demanding disciplinarian and more like a proud papa after this game.
“I watched people grow,” he said. “I watched AJ grow. I watched Tyson grow from when he got here. I watched Joey grow from the tough times he went through. And we have to get some more growth.
“Jaden Akins will get some growth. We have to get some growth out of Mady and some of those young guys.
“Malik Hall – the poor kid has been through hell with his injury all year. Never been right. He did some really good things tonight and then he misses a free throw and feels like he lost the game. No, he didn’t lose the game. He made some big plays early; when we couldn’t score, he made some big-time plays.”
Michigan State was a shot or two away from flirting with another Final Four – something that seemed impossible 12 days ago when the brackets came out, or at any checkpoint throughout the season.
Izzo was asked if that leaves something in the stomachs of these players that will drive them during the off-season and provide fuel to go further next year?
“I think it leaves a lot in the stomachs of guys,” Izzo said. “It leaves some in mine. What did we not do as good a job on? The ball screen coverage. There are a lot of things that you second-guess and go through your mind.
“Yet I say all that and if we make a free throw or two and they don’t bank in a couple, we win by four and talk about living another day.”
There is no choice but to learn and grow some more.
“So we didn’t quite make it,” Izzo said. “I’ve been through it before. Not many teams have I been prouder of. I don’t say that to make them feel good. but we made some mistakes that cost us.
“So we will have to learn from it and get better as coaches as players and see what we can do.”
Izzo managed another smile. He thanked media for attending. He told the to make sure the fans knew he appreciated them too.
Numb was a fitting word. If heartbreak was going to set in, it hadn’t yet. But it was about to.
“It sucks,” Izzo said. “That’s what sucks about sports. It goes, it goes, it goes, it goes and then it’s over.”
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