March 23, 2012

DotComp: Leaving a Legend

PHOENIX - It's never easy to watch legends walk away, especially when they have tears in their eyes.

Last week the tears belonged to Conklin, Majerus and Barton. This week's they were Draymond Green's. On a night in which Green became Michigan State's all-time rebounding leader, eclipsing another Michigan State legend, he felt the pain of seeing the Spartans' 2012 story end a few chapters too early.

This NCAA Tournament thing creates tears, more so than any other America sporting event. The finality of it is so stark and sudden. With four minutes to play, Green still believed his team would win, and continue to win for another week and a half. The National Championship was still the goal, still a possibility in his mind - even though it would take four more wins to achieve it. But in this tournament, there is no ceiling to the dreams. Not until now, if you're a senior.

Players almost never cry when they lose in the World Series, or the NBA Finals, or the Super Bowl. In those events, there is always next year. But in these college sports, for seniors, there is no next year. Defeated seniors do not get another chance. Green once stood up in front of his team as a freshman after losing in the 2009 National Championship game and said "Remember this feeling." Now he is out of those feelings.

The 2010 season came and went, with Green missing a late shot against Butler in the Final Four, choosing not to complain about hard contact and no call from the officials. Then came the disappointment of 2011. Then this one last chance to make it real in 2012. He still believed in his dream, right up till the end. Then the tears came.

He was the last Spartan to leave the court. Louisville guard Peyton Siva was the last person he hugged, before turning and heading for the tunnel. He put the front of his Spartans jersey in his teeth and bit down hard, to try hold back the tears.

Izzo Thinks He Made Mistakes

We - the fans and media - will have other Spartan teams, other Sweet 16s with Izzo, and maybe with Appling and Nix. Maybe they'll go farther. Maybe they'll do it soon, with Payne, Trice, Kearney, Gauna, Byrd, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello. Maybe Jabari Parker. Maybe Tyus Jones.

There will be other Sweet 16s and tournament runs for the fans. But not for Green. If he is back at one of these things, it will be in the same capacity as Magic Johnson last night, or Kirk Gibson, or Eddie Smith or Mark Mulder. They were in the stands, last night in Phoenix, cheering for their MSU. He'll come back as an important member of the Spartan family, but he won't get to wear the jersey. You and I, we'll come back with the same status we've always had. For him, this loss was a life-changing moment, one he was hoping and expecting to delay until later.

Izzo said Wednesday that he had six or seven other Michigan State teams that were more talented than this one. He said this one had special leadership, and strong togetherness, but a small margin for error. Maybe some of his more talented teams would have fought through a night of low mental and physical fuel. But this one maxed out unexpectedly.

Izzo has this great map and understanding and instinct on how to navigate the month of March. But this year's tournament gave him a rocky detour. He had never before had to manage a Sunday-Thursday turnaround in the NCAA Tournament.

Izzo is the master of the one-day prep in the NCAA Tournament, which customarily is followed by four days until the following game. This year, after edging past Saint Louis on a one-day prep in Columbus last Sunday, he had only three days until tip off for the Sweet 16 against Louisville, which had the usual four days to get ready after winning last weekend in Portland.

Louisville had a longer layoff, but elected to stay out West rather than travel home then travel all the way back to Phoenix. This wasn't an ideal situation for the Cardinals. But Louisville coach Rick Pitino felt his team was energized and focused; he said they enjoyed an excellent week of preparation. Izzo, by contrast, second guessed his itinerary for the week.

This was new for Izzo. They won on Sunday, blew two hours on the runway in Columbus due to severe weather, got back late on Sunday, had a bad practice on Monday, then flew back out west on Monday evening. All while trying to prepare for a different style of team than Michigan State had played all year.

"We have played all different styles of teams, and that's what we try to do," Izzo said. "But that style was different. That's the first time I had played a pressing team that drops back into a zone. That was a new one."

Izzo said he was eager to watch the film of the loss right after this game, to get some closure on what went wrong, and to file all of the memories and lessons into his head while they were still fresh. He said he would put all of the information into his "computer" so that he will have a better chance of figuring out how to navigate a road such as this if and when he ever encounters it again. He wants some closure, some answers because he had so many questions as to why his team played so listlessly on this day.

"Even when we cut the lead to four points, when I looked in my players' eyes, it was different," Izzo said. "We were just ... fried.

"For my team, I really have to look at myself when I get back, and say next year, the year after, how am I going to handle it differently? This is one of those games when I don't think we had one guy play really well, and I'm not saying we did as good a job as coaches. 

"So we grew together, we won together, we had fun together. Today we cried together. Because you couldn't even look at one guy or blame one guy; collectively we just didn't get it done."

That includes the boss.

"I think I made some mistakes. I really do," he said. "I'd never come out on a Monday again. I think we needed more time there (in East Lansing) and maybe get some athletes around that could do some things."

He is talking about utilizing MSU football players, seriously, to simulate Louisville's press and the quickness and length of their zone defense. He wanted to do that earlier this week, but he felt it was more important to get out to Phoenix as soon as possible, get acclimated, get over any jet lag or whatever, and just be where his opponents were.

But after reviewing the decision in the days ahead, perhaps he'll feel that the team should have flown directly from Columbus to Phoenix and get out a day earlier, not even mess around with East Lansing, not even go to classes on Monday.

"It was just a weird situation for us," he said.

There probably is no correct answer. Thus is life with a Sunday-Thursday turn-around.

Know this: Louisville probably would have won anyway, if both teams had had the same length of recovery and prep for this game. What I'm trying to figure out - as is Izzo - is how this Michigan State team which was so hot two weeks ago at the Big Ten Tournament could shoot 28.6 percent for the game, and score only 44 points.

Louisville still would have won this matchup if all things had been equal. But maybe the 28 percent would have been 38 percent. Maybe the 44 points would have been 54 points. And maybe the final score would have been a 3-point loss rather than a 13-point loss. But if that had been the case, there might have been more heartbreak, and then Izzo wouldn't have all of these variables to lament.

"I thought we were mentally fatigued today and maybe that was almost too much (down) time (here in Phoenix)," Izzo said. "You're in the hotel, you're not going to class ..."

He didn't know the answers. In 50 previous NCAA Tournament games, he had never been confronted with a puzzle like this. He is the master of the one-day prep. He has a scientific, methodical, proven approach to every minute spent from the time the brackets are announced on Sunday night, until tipoff later in the week on Thursday or Friday. But his March DNA didn't prepare him for this week's situation.

I'm a believer in Duffy Daugherty's old theory that WHO you play sometimes isn't as important as WHEN you play and WHERE you play. In my opinion, the task of conducting a Thursday-Sunday trip to the West was 10 or 15 points to Michigan State's detriment in this game. Everyone was low on juice.

Rewinding a bit to one of my favorite axioms, I believe it is a risk to play in the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game. The worst scenario is if you play in the Big Ten Tournament title game on Selection Sunday and then get shipped out West to begin first-round play on Thursday. That's the tight turnaround that conference coaches dread, and Izzo always feared. Well, MSU avoided that plight this year, getting the break of starting its tournament on a Friday in Columbus. However, the dreaded Sunday-Thursday Western road trip became MSU's reality for the Sweet 16, thanks to new, made-for-TV scheduling. And it took a lot of air out of their tires. It was obvious.

They didn't have proper time to recover from the battle with Saint Louis. And not enough time to sufficiently recharge and prepare for Louisville.

Robbed Of The Sunbeams

Izzo says his favorite time of year is when the team gets deep into March, survives the first week of the NCAA Tournament, and comes home to East Lansing to begin a second week of NCAA Tournament practice. The sun stays out longer at this time of year. The angle of the sun beams cut through the glass doors of the Breslin Center and onto the court. Izzo opens the curtains of the arena and welcomes the sunshine on the hardwood. Those are his favorite practices.

But he didn't get a chance to experience that this year. The team had only one practice on campus following the first weekend, and it was early in the day on Monday, with the angle of the sun not just right. Izzo and the Spartans didn't even get a second week of the NCAA Tournament. By playing on Sunday and then Thursday, their Sweet 16 game was basically part of an elongated FIRST week.

Add it all up: the shuttle relay travel; the lack of a good, athletic practice due to worries of getting worn down with one less day of preparation; the quality of the opponent; the uniqueness of the opponent. Throw it all together and you receive the worst offensive performance by an MSU team in an NCAA Tournament game.

Louisville's defense is good, but it isn't that good.

Izzo could deal with the outcome if a superior team just flat out shut MSU down, as was the case when the Spartans lost to Memphis in Izzo's last Sweet 16 loss in 2008. But Izzo is not accepting the possibility that Louisville was superior to this Spartans. He is searching for other reasons why his team lacked horsepower. When he arrives at answers, it won't make him feel any better. But he'll have a new answer as to how to handle a Sunday-Thursday western trip if it ever happens again.

Five or six weeks after Michigan State lost to Memphis in 2008, I had a one-on-one interview with Izzo. I asked him what was his final analysis of the MSU-Memphis film. He said he never watched it. This surprised me. Izzo is Mr. Film. But he didn't want to watch it again, didn't need to.

By contrast, he said he was eager to watch film of this game against Louisville on Thursday night, right after the game. This one hurts more, puzzles him more.

It was understandable when his teams have lost to No. 1 seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16 of 1998, or to No. 1 seeded Memphis in the Sweet 16 of 2008. But No. 1 seeded Michigan State is not supposed to get upset in the Sweet 16. This had never happened in the Izzo era. He is going to have a hard time digesting it.

But not as hard a time as Green.

"We have compared him as a leader and all that to Mateen," Izzo said. "But Mateen had so much more around him. So much of this, all year, was on Draymond."

On Wednesday, Izzo said he had had six or seven other teams that were more talented than his current Spartans.

In the pre-Tournament issue of SPARTAN Magazine, I pointed out that this year's roster was not on par with the rosters of Izzo's past Final Four teams. There wasn't enough depth. When Izzo has the right amount of depth, he is able to keep guys fresher, keep them sprinting in transition faster and more relentlessly. This team didn't have those kind of wheels, that number of legs.

When he has proper depth - like he did in 1999, 2000, '01, '05 and '09 - his teams are able to keep mashing and bashing on the glass. And then more of the missed shots on a night of poor shooting become offensive rebounds and put-backs, rather than the putrid eight offensive rebounds on 35 missed shots that the Spartans managed on Thursday. That's an offensive rebounding rate of just 22 percent. Chalk that up to good box-outs by Louisville, but also lack of horsepower on the glass.

MSU didn't have enough depth to crash the glass as it had most of the year, and as it has in the glory seasons. Losing Branden Dawson had something to do with that. The Sunday-Thursday western turn-around was also a factor. It all added up.

Asking For A Better Ending

Outside the locker room following the loss, Izzo talked about the run Michigan State made which cut the lead to four.

"That was with how much time left?" Izzo said.

"Six, seven, eight minutes to go," someone said.

Izzo shrugged and nodded.

Actually MSU cut it to 4 points with a full 10:56 remaining. It just seemed like there were six or seven minutes left, because on one hand it seemed like time was running out too rapidly, and on the other hand it seemed like this team only had that long left in the tank.

When Izzo watches film, he will see Draymond Green cut it to 35-31 with a put-back jam. He broke Greg Kelser's school rebounding record with that dunk. Or tied it. Or something like that. Someone was keeping track of that stuff, but no one cared at the moment.

Green trotted back on defense, looked at Brandon Wood, smiled and stuck out his tongue with a funky nod. This game was back to good. The Spartans were going to win. We all sensed it.

But right then, MSU had a defensive breakdown. The Spartans didn't have many defensive errors in this game. But they had one at this instance. Siva, Louisville's point guard, managed to get into the lane. He tried to penetrate on practically every Louisville possession. MSU staved him off most times. But on this occasion, and a few others, he got inside and dumped the ball off to a teammate for a lay-up. It answered Green's dunk, to put Louisville up by six.

Then came the turning point, or more more accurately the point that turned fortunes back toward the Cardinals.

Green fed Adreain Payne with a pass in the post. Payne made a move and shot a short turn-around jumper. Louisville's defensive hero of the night, shot blocker Gorgui Dieng, went up to get a piece of the ball. Instead he got all arm. It was clear, obvious and right where all the officials should have been looking. MSU didn't lose this game because of bad officiating, but they desperately needed good officiating on this particular play. But there was no call. Payne looked at the nearest official with his eyebrows raised and his palms upward as if to say, "How is that not a foul?"

Seconds later, Louisville's Chris Smith nailed a 3-pointer, to push the lead back up to 9. Then Keith Appling immediately turned the ball over against Louisville's full-court press and the Cardinals hit another lay-up.

The hard work MSU had put in to cut the lead to 4, with all that time remaining, was suddenly back up to 11.

A play by Siva, a play by Dieng, an error against the press, and a 3-point shot - all of the ingredients which put Louisville in the lead came to the forefront to turn matters back in their favor. To their credit. They played up, they finished the plays, they answered.

The new 11-point lead was too steep a hill to climb on a night when the Spartans were only able to muster 14 field goals.

Still, MSU had one last charge. Wood nailed a 3-pointer to cut a 13-point lead to 10. Then Wood drove baseline for a lay-up to cut it to 8. An amazing crew of MSU supporters came to their feet. MSU fans outnumbered Louisville fans at least 2-to-1 in this game and maybe 3-to-1 as West Coast alums represented, creating a complete reversal of the 3-to-1 fan advantage Louisville enjoyed over MSU at the '09 Regionals in Indianapolis. Izzo had to love this, but he didn't even get a chance to mention it in the post-game interviews, due to more forlorn topics.

After cutting it to 8, MSU got a defensive stop.

Then on offense, with a chance to cut the lead to 6 with 4:06 left, Green fed Derrick Nix in the post. Nix offered a pump fake and tried to score against Dieng with an up-and-under, followed by a counter scoop. But Dieng stayed down, didn't bite, and reacted to the counter move by blocking it down low. It was excellent defense.

"He was very disruptive," Green said of Dieng.  "We knew he averaged three and a half blocks a game. And we're not going to back down from anyone. We still took it out of him. He pulled off some great blocked shots. And that's what he does, that's his strength.

"I think we found some lanes and we got some good things going inside, he just ‑‑ he did what he do best.  And I think Derrick Nix and Adreian, they did the moves they always use that worked during the year. He played solid defense and he was the anchor in the middle for them."

Green accepted defeat.

"Like we told the guys in the locker room, and our coaching staff, thanks for a great year," Green said. "Where we came from, from the beginning of the year, no one thought we was going to be anything.

"And for all us guys, including our coaching staff and our managers, our support staff, everybody rallied around us like the way they did, it was great.

"And we couldn't have asked for a better year. We could have asked for a better ending."

Izzo heard "MSU Shadows" playing in the background as he stepped off the court for the final time in an Spartan jersey. He was greeted at the tunnel by dozens of MSU fans, leaning over a white rail, smiling and cheering for him. Trying to make him feel better; trying to thank him.

Green reached up to a kid in a Spartan shirt and slapped the kid five. Then he slapped hands with a second MSU fan, and a third and a fourth. MSU fans clapped while he disappeared beneath them into the tunnel.

Marquette's players were at the end of the tunnel, waiting to take the court. They saw his tears. Two Marquette players greeted Green, and they exchanged half-hug shoulder bumps with him. Green turned left to head for the Michigan State locker room, but he saw Marquette star Jae Crowder out of the corner of his eye to the right. Green turned, went over to Crowder, and the two men who were supposed to guard each other on Saturday night with the Final Four at stake hugged strong and long.

Then Green stopped and hugged Marquette's Jamil Wilson. Wilson almost signed with Michigan State as a recruit. He chose between MSU and Oregon four years ago (he later transferred to Marquette). Green recruited him hard for Michigan State.

Wilson would be a junior with Nix right now if he had signed with MSU, which is what Spartan coaches thought Wilson was going to do before they received the surprising news that he had committed to Oregon.

Green might be handing the captain's torch to Wilson later this month if Wilson had joined the Spartans. Green will never know. We'll never know if anything could have been done to change the outcome of this Sweet 16 turned sour.

Green left Wilson behind and headed down a long hallway, to the locker room. At the end of the hallway were several television cameras and a group of reporters, standing behind an NCAA-mandated line, pointing recording devices at him, stealing his feelings as he walked alone toward the door and his last moment with his guys.

We won't know if an extra day of equalized preparation would have helped. We won't know if MSU would have gone farther if Dawson hadn't gotten injured. There might not be any answers. But Izzo will search for understanding and future wisdom in the weeks ahead - and he'll do it for the first time in years without Draymond Jamal Green.

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