Wojo: Spartans cut it too close for comfort, but Izzo’s streak lives

The bracket might irritate some in East Lansing, where Selection Sunday usually is…

Wojo: Spartans cut it too close for comfort, but Izzo's streak lives 1

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Wojo: Spartans cut it too close for comfort, but Izzo's streak lives 2

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NCAA Tournament TV Show: Wojo, Niyo break down MSU-UM’s bracket

Bob Wojonowski and John Niyo take a look at the opening NCAA tournament games for Michigan State and Michigan.

The Detroit News

No easy breathing for the Spartans, not this year. A season of unprecedented uncertainty came down to the final sweaty moments before their NCAA Tournament streak survived, and that’s the operative word for Tom Izzo’s team — survive.

From seemingly no chance a few weeks ago, Michigan State gave itself a chance with a stirring run, and indeed extended the program’s 23-year Tournament streak. As it turns out, the peril was real, and Michigan State (15-12) slid into the 68-team field as one of the last four at-large teams, and will face UCLA (17-9) in a First Four game Thursday for the 11 seed. If the Spartans win, they’ll have to play again Saturday against sixth-seeded BYU (20-6).

Michigan State won’t be anyone’s Final Four choice for a change, and might not even be picked to advance past Saturday. They could make some teams uncomfortable because Izzo is Izzo, they’re battle-tested and they have a play-maker in Aaron Henry. But their offense has fluctuated from stagnant to streaky all season, and they turn the ball over so often, their margins are as thin as can be.

Those thin margins were revealed in the brackets, and while Izzo was happy to extend the streak, he wasn’t exactly giddy about the seeding.

“We dug ourselves a hole in some ways,” Izzo said. “Was I surprised (at the play-in game)? Yeah, I was surprised. Am I disappointed? I’m not disappointed. I’ve been through so much here over the years. The fact is, we played in the best conference in the country. I’m not gonna be upset about a play-in game, but I think our conference should be.”

The bracket might irritate some in East Lansing, where Selection Sunday usually is a pizza party, not a pressure party. But it won’t mean much by Thursday, when two storied programs will battle to validate their invites. Unusual, yes. Insulting, no. When you stare into the abyss and don’t fall in, there’s no sense quibbling about how dangerous it was.

‘Fired up’

“I was just excited to be in, under the circumstances, with COVID and with the way we’d been playing,” Henry said. “I’m up for any challenge, doesn’t matter who it is. Everyone’s fired up and excited to play.”

The Spartans’ one-and-done test begins a game early, a surprise to some considering the strength of the Big Ten, which landed nine teams in the bracket. But the metrics always suggested they’d have to sweat a bit. Their NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) of 70 is among the lowest in the field, and although many debate the validity of that ranking, the selection committee clearly uses it. By comparison, UCLA, which lost its last four games, has a NET of 46. The Spartans and Bruins have one common opponent — UCLA lost to Ohio State 77-70, while Michigan State split two games with the Buckeyes.


The Spartans made it in by the skin of their gritted teeth, by defeating three top-five teams in the final two weeks. From a 4-9 Big Ten record, they beat Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State, seeded 1, 1 and 2, respectively. In fact, Michigan is the one seed in the East Region with Michigan State, and the Big Ten’s strength was rewarded at the top of the bracket.

The NET does include margins of victory, theoretically only up to 10 points. The Spartans did lose Big Ten games by 25, 30, 17, 30, 18 and 19 points, and fell by 11 to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament. Izzo said it was a “joke” if the NET was a major factor, but he backed off from belaboring it.

He also made a confession.

“I want to thank my players,” Izzo said. “I lied to everybody. I tried to take the heat off when I said the 23-year streak didn’t matter. I’m proud of it. And I want to thank them because they went through hell. I feel getting in is a big deal, and it’s gonna be exciting.”

It’ll actually feel like a marquee game to open the tournament, and maybe that was part of the selection committee’s strategy. Chairman Mitch Barnhart said it was fun to start with “two great teams and great programs with lots of national championships,” but added the committee followed the seeding line.

If you take the entire body of work, the Spartans didn’t fall far from where they belonged. They’ve alternately played inspired and listless, then won five of seven in a brutal 15-day stretch. Now, they’re taking the optimistic approach. “Chances make champions,” is what Henry said, quoting MSU star Cassius Winston, who missed out on his last run when the 2020 Tournament was canceled by COVID.

“People who are counting against us or don’t play on us winning, we can go out and show people what we can do and who we are,” Henry said. “We played our best with our backs against the wall, it’s been that way for the Spartans for a long time. It’s a good time for us to write our own story. The road’s not easy, that’s what makes it the best. We wouldn’t rather have it any other way.”

The road is longer and more treacherous than ever. Beyond daunting, for sure. The Spartans are just happy, and a little relieved, they kept a streak and a season alive.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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