Did anyone, outside of Tom Izzo and the Spartan players, think that Michigan State basketball had a realistic shot at the Sweet Sixteen this season?
In a game that was frequently hard on the eyes--due to the sludgy, barroom brawl-with-a-basketball style of hoops implemented by Virginia coach Tony Bennett--the Spartans beat the Cavaliers at their own game--due to Tom Izzo shaking up MSU's defensive scheme in the one day turnaround between the Georgia game and the Virginia game. It was the best defensive performance I've seen from Michigan State all season. Travis Trice provided a big offensive spark early on, Branden Dawson displayed his prodigious athleticism and did the little things that aren't reflected in the stat sheet, and the Spartans basically out-muscled Virginia 60-54.
It's high time I sang the praises of this team. They're certainly not the most talented team MSU has ever had, and heaven knows they are the worst free throw shooting team in Tom Izzo's tenure, but as the coach said in his post-game press conference, "These guys enjoy being around each other." That is a key component to their success this season.
I liked Travis Trice as a player as soon as I saw him as a freshman. He simply had the look of a kid who would develop into a great leader. To borrow from sports cliches, a "glue guy," a "program player." In other words, a player who is not gifted with the greatest athletic ability in the world, but has court vision, a knowledge of the game, leadership, and a strong work ethic. But in this last month or so, Trice has even exceeded what I saw as his potential. He has a great step-back jump shot and has developed an ability to drive the lane, lay up beautiful floaters or elevate high for a slam dunk, Trice has been a fun player to watch his entire four years in East Lansing.
There has never been a question about Branden Dawson's athletic ability. He is able to do things on the court that are awe-inspiring. The problem has been inconsistency: there have been times Dawson has played like the best player on the floor and others where he has disappeared. But Dawson has elevated his game recently and is playing with an urgency of someone who knows his college career is almost over and doesn't want it to end. I like Dawson about as much as I like Trice, and hope that he can at least have a good career for himself overseas, playing in Europe or elsewhere. Perhaps, with enough work, he can develop into a legitimate NBA small forward. He certainly has the rebounding ability. I don't know the last time I saw a player his size dominate the glass--and Dawson is also the best "glass cleaner" or "trash man" I've ever seen in a Michigan State uniform. I can't count the number of times I've seen Dawson seemingly arrive out of nowhere to put back a missed shot. He's a master at that.
Denzel Valentine has the ability to amaze and aggravate like few players I've seen. One minute, he can make a brilliant pass the likes of which Magic Johnson might envy, and the next moment make a mistake that has you either pounding your head against a wall or cursing your television. But that's what you get with Denzel. He's a little reckless and extremely fearless, much like Connor Cook on the MSU football team. Like Cook, he doesn't allow mistakes get him down, and this is one element that makes him an outstanding basketball player.
The rest of the team has grown over the season, and all the players know their roles. Nobody on this team seems to have an ego. Matt Costello does the dirty work in the paint, Lourawls Nairn brings energy and toughness, Marvin Clark has overcome a rocky start to his freshman year and now plays solid defense and hits the occasional shot, Alvin Ellis has made huge strides in just the last few weeks, Bryn Forbes can provide instant offense, at least when he makes his shots (and he's been making many more of them lately) and is much better on defense now than he was earlier in the season. Though Gavin Schilling has had a rocky season, and draws fouls at an Aloysius Anagonye-esque rate, he has tremendous upside (and next to Dawson is probably the most ripped guy on the team). Schilling is another player with a high ceiling.
Anyone who is a Michigan State basketball fan has to be extremely proud of how far this team has come this season, and any more victories they obtain from this point forward is gravy. Maybe, just maybe, this team will end up being the Final Four team we expected to see last season. If so, it will be one of the most memorable seasons in Spartan hoops history.