Hickey: It's March, so here comes Tom Izzo and Michigan State
For a moment Friday afternoon, Michigan State was in a red alert.
Starting point guard AJ Hoggard was on the bench after picking up his 3rd foul not even 3 minutes into the second half. Shooting guard Tyson Walker was writhing in pain, clutching his arm after hitting the floor hard taking a charge from USC guard Boogie Ellis.
The Spartans had already seen their early 10-point lead over 10th-seeded USC whittled down to a 38-38 tie.
The door was wide open for the Trojans to take over. But they never did. The Spartans eventually pulled away for a 72-62 win.
This is March — which means it’s Michigan State season.
Recent returns may have caused some folks to forget that fact. We are in the midst of the biggest lull in Tom Izzo’s postseason career, with Michigan State only making it out of the first weekend once since 2016.
But an Izzo lull is still better than just about anybody else’s lull.
The Spartans reached the Final Four in 2019, which marked the 8th time they accomplished the feat in Izzo’s tenure. It remains the Big Ten’s most recent Final Four appearance.
And given that history, every individual Michigan State win in the First Round comes with the question, “Is this the start of the next run?”
Nothing Michigan State did in the second half of Friday’s win over USC dampened that notion.
A classic Spartan blueprint
Let’s go back to the moment where it looked like things might fall apart.
Walker got off the ground, briefly visited with Michigan State’s training staff, and essentially rubbed some dirt on it. There was no time to sit out in a situation like this, especially with Hoggard on the bench in foul trouble.
Walker dished out to Joey Hauser for a go-ahead 3. On the next possession, he drove to the hoop for a layup in traffic.
And banged-up or not, Walker spent the entire game glued to USC’s best offensive player.
Boogie Ellis is a legitimate star. He ranked 2nd in the Pac-12 with 18 points per game, even upping that total to 18.7 ppg against Pac-12 opponents.
Guarded by Walker, Ellis finished with 6 points in his final game as a Trojan. He was 3-for-12 from the field, including 0 of 3 from 3-point range, before fouling out.
Everything about Walker’s performance — the defense, the guts, the play-making in the moments immediately after an injury — exemplifies what we’ve come to expect from an Izzo-coached team in March.
But defense alone won’t get the job done. Izzo’s best teams tend to be balanced. And on Friday, Michigan State showed some balance.
There was a flash of promise from an offense that is just 121st nationally in effective field goal percentage this season. And it came against a USC defense that is 10th in effective field goal percentage.
The Spartans shot 48.1% from the field, which was their 7th-best performance this season. Encouragingly, the mercurial Joey Hauser continued his recent run of good play. Hauser led the Spartans with 17 points — his 8th game of at least 15 points in the past 9.
Don’t celebrate just yet
Of course, there were also some moments that demonstrated why we no longer schedule Michigan State Final Four appearances with the same frequency as Daylight Savings Time.
Like every other team in this tournament, the Spartans are flawed. And there were times where the flaws were more prominent than the strengths.
Michigan State couldn’t deliver a knockout punch, instead earning its victory by decision. The Spartans didn’t hit a field goal for the final 4:25, leaving the Trojans with ample opportunity to mount a rally.
Free throws turned out to be just as much of a problem — if not more so. There was a stretch were the Spartans combined to miss 7 straight free throws, including the front end of 3 1-and-1s.
If you wrote a book on how to blow a lead in March, that would be in the opening chapter. Fortunately for Michigan State, it is merely a footnote. And given that this was the Big Ten’s best free-throw shooting team, it seems unlikely to be repeated.
Michigan State gave USC a gift that few teams are afforded, yet the Trojans were unable to take advantage.
But maybe that’s proof Michigan State’s March mystique has never gone away. Even when seemingly handing away the game on a platter, the Spartans thrive at the concept of survive-and-advance.
Which means that once again, Izzo and his crew may only just be getting warmed up.