WASHINGTON – They are coming. That’s easy to see. Even if it hasn’t been for most of the season.
That happens when a team loses a couple of NBA lottery picks one season and replaces them with role players the next. Expectations change. Michigan State basketball has fought them all winter.
Can they really be this good?
Well, look at the Spartans now. A win away from the Final Four after throttling LSU, 80-63, Friday night at Capital One Arena.
Think back to last week, when Tom Izzo took his Spartans to Iowa in need of a couple of wins. They hadn’t gotten to a second weekend of the NCAA tournament in four years. They played like it, too. Heavy-legged and hesitant.
But they survived. Flew home relieved — and free.
They played like it against LSU. Jumping to an 8-0 lead. Using the start to stretch it to 17. Holding off a second-half rally. Doing what they’ve done all season.
Now here they are, back where Izzo used to live in March, deep into the tournament, a few more moments from more history.
You want Duke?
Well, why not? MSU can’t keep losing to Duke forever. That is if the Blue Devils can beat Virginia Tech first (the two teams played late Friday).
Either way, the Spartans should be able to compete. No, should be able to win.
After all, you watched what they did Friday night, right? And who did it?
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A rising freshman got it started. Aaron Henry hit a smooth pull-up jumper from the right elbow to open MSU’s scoring. He hit a 3-pointer the next possession. Cassius Winston hit another.
And they were off, scoring up and down the bench — as short as it is. Xavier Tillman knocking down a 3-pointer and battling with LSU’s ferocious bigs.
It was a stellar shooting display from Izzo’s best shooting team, which made sense, because they finally had rest.
That was critical when LSU made its push. When the Tigers cut the Spartans’ 17-point lead to 12 at the half, when point guard Tremont Waters hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. His 3 ignited an 8-0 run, trimming the lead to four.
But there was Kenny Goins, who hit a 3, his first of the game, and then backpedaled down the court yelling: “We’re all right. We’re all right.”
And there was Tillman, making a layup. And there was more Henry and fellow freshman Gabe Brown, having the game of his life, knocking down four 3s.
The Spartans pushed the lead back to 15. Despite giving up quickness. Giving up size. Giving up athleticism. Giving up all the things Izzo and his staff fretted over this week, studying film of the Tigers, trying to figure out how they’d compete.
Well, they did. Of course they did. It’s what they do, even if their coach sometimes wonders how they do it.
How they fight off injuries, as they did again, when center Nick Ward fell and hurt his hand. LSU’s center, Naz Reid, had undercut him.
The refs called a technical. Winston missed both free throws.
For a moment, MSU looked unsettled. It was hard to blame it. Here was yet another teammate grimacing on the bench, getting tended to by the trainer.
After Winston missed the free throws, Izzo gave Winston the thumbs-up. Told him to relax and forget about the free throws.
When MSU took the ball out of bounds, Winston gave Izzo a nod, found a crease, and casually made a long jumper. Izzo pumped his fists.
The Spartans have a season’s worth of moments like that. Whether gathering themselves after an injury or an opponent’s run.
Do it one more time and they’ll be back to a place that used to be familiar, in a year when few saw it coming.
Duke? Virginia Tech?
At this point it doesn’t matter. Bring em’ on. The Spartans wouldn’t have it any other way.