LSJ columnist Graham Couch, Freep beat writer Chris Solari and Freep columnist Shawn Windsor break down MSU’s Sweet 16 win
Graham Couch and Chris Solari and Shawn Windsor, Lansing State Journal
WASHINGTON — It’s what they wanted. It’s why they came to Michigan State.
To get to a Final Four. To have a chance to win Tom Izzo’s second national title.
To etch their names among the elite.
“It means everything,” senior captain Matt McQuaid said. “That’s a big goal of ours. We always want to accomplish that. Those are the expectations here — championships.”
No. 2 seed MSU used a bevy of big runs, hot shooting, strong rebounding and physical defense to knock out No. 3 seed LSU on Friday night, 80-63. It is Izzo’s 10th Elite Eight appearance in 24 seasons and a chance for his eighth Final Four.
“If you’re a coach, there’s no greater time to play than where there’s only gonna be so many teams left, eight teams left by the time we play,” Izzo said. “That’s what I live for, that’s what I dream of.”
Next up for Izzo, though, is the coach and team he sees in his nightmares.
Standing in the way for the Spartans (31-6) is their old nemeses: Mike Krzyzewski and No. 1 seed Duke (32-5). As well as the best player in college basketball, freshman phenom Zion Williamson. Tipoff is 5:05 p.m. Sunday at Capital One Arena (CBS).
“Michigan State is similar to Duke. They have a winning history,” said Williamson, who had 23 points and six rebounds in the Blue Devils’ 75-73 escape of 4-seed Virginia Tech in Friday’s late game. “It will be a great game. We just gotta go out there and compete.”
Krzyzewski said he only “watched (the Spartans) a little bit” so far, but he knows two things his team must do: rebound the ball and stop MSU junior point guard Cassius Winston.
“How do you try to figure out how to guard Cassius? … Obviously, I know Cassius Winston is maybe the best point guard in the country. He’s MVP of the Big Ten,” Krzyzewski said. “And Tom’s program — a their program of great offensive rebounding, toughness, togetherness, you know, we’ll try to put something together.”
The all-time winningest coach in Division I history also knows a something or two when it comes to MSU.
Krzyzewski is 11-1 against Izzo, including a 4-1 edge in the NCAA tournament. The Spartans’ only win in that stretch came in the 2005 Sweet 16, en route to Izzo’s fourth Final Four. The Blue Devils eliminated MSU in the 2015 Final Four en route to their most recent of five national titles under Krzyzewski.
Kenny Goins is the only remaining Spartan from that team, but Duke also beat many of the MSU veterans twice in each of the last two seasons — 78-69 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 29, 2016, and 88-81 on Nov. 14, 2017, in the Champions Classic.
Krzyzewski’s 12 Final Fours are tied with John Wooden for the most in NCAA history. Izzo’s seven rank fifth all-time and third among active coaches, two behind North Carolina coach Roy Williams’ nine.
“Tom’s done a great job with this team because they’ve had injuries,” Krzyzewski said. “And he’s one of the great coaches and a good friend. … It’s an honor to be in the Elite Eight, and it will be a heck of a game.”
When the Spartans trickled out of the arena toward their bus near halftime of the Duke-Virginia Tech game, the Blue Devils were trailing. They caught a glimpse of how the Hokies beat Duke earlier this season — a 77-72 win on Feb. 26 in Blacksburg, Virginia, without Williamson — and nearly did it again in the Sweet 16.
The Blue Devils escaped its last two games on missed shots by opposing players for a 77-76 win over Central Florida as two layups rolled off the rim and then Friday’s victory over the Hokies as Ahmed Hill’s midair catch-and-shoot near the basket attempt fell short.
Duke played Friday without Cam Reddish, its other star freshman forward who was a late scratch with a knee issue. Krzyzewski did not say whether Reddish — a projected NBA lottery pick — would be available Sunday against MSU. The 6-foot-8 forward started all 35 games he played in this season, averaging 13.6 points and 3.7 rebounds. He missed one game due to illness.
But the 6-7, 286-pound Williamson, who missed five games with a knee injury of his own in late February and early March, continued his winter-long dominant play in what likely will be his only season with the Blue Devils. He is averaging 26.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in three NCAA games and 22.6 points and 8.7 boards over 32 games.
“I can’t allow myself or my teammates to overlook Michigan State, because they have a history just like Duke,” Williamson said. “They’re a great team, so I can’t think of it as we’re one win from the Final Four. I got to think of it as let’s focus on Michigan State and those 40 minutes.”
Without Reddish, Krzyzewski used just six players primarily against the Hokies. Williamson and 6-2 freshman guard Tre Jones (22 points) played all 40 minutes. Forward RJ Barrett and guard Alex O’Connell, who took Reddish’s spot in the starting lineup, both played 35-plus minutes.
MSU also used four of its starters for 31-plus minutes apiece, with McQuaid in foul trouble and playing a little more than 25 against LSU. The Spartans had four players score in double figures, including a career-high 20 from Aaron Henry, 17 from Winston and a season-best 15 off the bench from Gabe Brown.
“I just thought in general it was a very team-oriented victory,” Izzo said, “and that will be fun moving forward. … I think they’re learning how to do that. I kind of imposed that on them.
“It’s kind of fun, because we still got some former guys that came out here. They know. I saw Andre Hutson, and he coined the phrase, ‘To be the best, you gotta beat the best.’ I don’t know who we’ll play, but we’re gonna have our hands full.”
MSU also got 22 assists on 31 made baskets and beat the taller Tigers on the boards, 41-34.
Said Williamson, “They may not get the notoriety I guess that we get, but they have great players. They play their roles and they execute, as you can see against LSU they were executing.”
So is this time against Duke different than the others, with so much more at stake?
Goins said he believes the Spartans’ minds must remain focused in the moment and not get caught up worrying about making a Final Four.
“You process it like it’s another game,” the senior said. “We’ve been doing the same thing for almost two months now. That is, when you lose, you go home. All the guys understand that — freshmen, sophomore, juniors and me and McQuaid, obviously.
“We just gotta keep preparing like we have been for two months.”