Photo: The 2020 Spartans celebrate
We’re stranded in a basketball wasteland, left longingly to wonder how the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament would have turned out. And, tragically, it’s all necessary for life-and-death reasons – the COVID-19 pandemic.
Well, with plenty of time to ponder the possibilities, let’s wander and wonder.
Michigan State, to me, looked like a team that could replicate the hot run the 2015 Spartans put together to the Final Four. Why have I compared a possible 2020 run to 2015 among Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s eight Final Four trips?
The 2015 Final Four run was unlikely as a seventh-seeded team that was unranked with a 21-10 regular-season record (23-11 entering NCAA). By the Sweet Sixteen, the 2015 Spartans were the highest seeded remaining team.
Michigan State entered the tournament ranked only 32nd in the nation in three-point shooting (294-of-763, .385), but in four post-season games Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes combined for 30-of-72 (.416). That’s not a big bump, but their three-pointers were timely and at least one of them had a hot hand in each game. Forbes was 3-of-6 against Georgia; Trice 4-of-8, Virginia; Valentine 4-of-9, Oklahoma; and Forbes 4-of-6, Louisville.
From the free throw line, the Spartans were 336th (451-714, .632), but down the final moments of four tight NCAA wins the Spartans hit 17-of-18 (.944), including 4-of-4 in overtime against Louisville.
But the pedestrian seed didn’t matter because the 2015 Spartans got hot with individual performances. Michigan State beat 10th seeded and unranked Georgia, second-seeded and No. 3 Virginia, third-seeded and No. 15 Oklahoma and fourth-seeded and No. 14 Louisville.
Well, the 2015 seeding was redolent of the 2020 Spartans, who were being slotted as mid-level seed with a likely early exit. That low expectation was due to injuries added to the the emotional toll and uncharted territory of All-American guard Cassius Winston coping with his brother’s death.
But the Spartans found their game with a five-game winning streak to end the regular season and claim a share of the Big Ten title. If you were like me, believing the 2020 team found itself just in time, you weren’t alone.
“You can say a lot of teams had a chance, but I think we seriously, seriously, seriously had a legitimate chance,” Izzo told Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowoski. “I was texting Magic (Johnson) the other day and I said, even a pessimist like me thought we had a real shot at the end. We had four or five guys that played in the Final Four last year, including my quarterback (Winston) and my center (Tillman). We had things some of my other teams never had.”
It’s always reassuring to hear you’re on the same page as Izzo and Magic. It also helped deflect “homer” fears that naturally seep into me as an optimistic Michigan State graduate. But then I came across another reason to believe a national title could have been in the 2020 stars for the Spartans.
The Raleigh News & Observer ran a virtual tournament series that concluded with Michigan State defeating Gonzaga in the final. The data used was from “WhatIfSports.com” and input from Washington Post bracketologist Patrick Stevens.
In the virtual tournament’s Midwest Regional, the Spartans defeated Eastern Washington, Indiana, Creighton and Houston. In the Final Four semifinals, the Spartans beat Big Ten rival Maryland, the East Regional winner. The other two Regional champions were Auburn (South) and Gonzaga (West).
I can’t begin to understand how a computer crunches such information into results, but below is what I felt in my gut (before the gut-punch shut down the NCAA Tournament).
2015 Spartans celebrate their Final Four trip with East Regional title.
2015, Michigan State defeated Georgia, 70-63.
Bryn Forbes hit 3-of-6 treys off the bench to score 14 points in 23 minutes. Travis Trice (15 points) and Denzel Valentine (16) were both only 2-of-5 beyond the arc, but they scored timely points.
Michigan State went on a 21-8 run to end the first half with a 35-22 lead. Trice hit a three-pointer (19-14); Forbes, 3-pointer (27-20); Valentine, 3-pointer (30-22); Trice, dunk (32-22); and Trice, three-pointer (35-22).
In the final 28 seconds of the contest, Georgia made it a two-score game, 64-60. But Valentine maintained at least a two-score margin hitting 6-of-6 free throws. He bumped the leads to 66-60, 68-63 and the final score, 70-63.
This game also was won with some Sparty pixie dust. Izzo was forced to look deep down his bench to Colby Wollenman. Gavin Schilling picked up three quick fouls and Matt Costello fouled out, but Wollenman, the good doctor from Big Horn, Wyo, played strong defense and grabbed five rebounds in 11 minutes.
2020 simulation, Michigan State beats Eastern Washington
Who played the 2020 roles? Winston is already an All-American, so he can be counted on to duplicate Trice’s "All-American-like" play in the tournament. Winston and Rocket Watts shared the point guard/shooting guard roles that Trice and Valentine synchronized. Sophomore Gabe Brown was Forbes off the bench. Freshman Julius Marble, who averaged only 5.6 minutes a game for the season but has shown promise for the future, was Wollenman with valuable minutes.
2015, Michigan State defeated Virginia, 60-54.
Trice whipped himself into a cyclone shortly after tip-off. Trice hit five straight shots for 13 points and a 15-4 lead. He hit a three-pointer, 5-2; three-pointer, 8-4; dunk, 10-4; three-pointer, 13-4; and layup, 15-4. The fast break was running past the Cavaliers for three of his buckets -- his dunk, layup and when he pulled up on a three-pointer.
Late in the game Virginia trimmed its deficit to 49-44, but Trice responded with a three-pointer for a 52-44 lead and two free throws for 57-49 lead with 45 seconds remaining.
Trice finished 4-of-8 on three-pointers to score 23 points. Valentine was 1-of-2 and Forbes 1-of-1 from behind the arc for a team total of 6-of-11, .545.
In addition, ball movement resulted in nine Spartans scoring: Trice, Valentine, Forbes, Brendan Dawson, Gavin Schilling, Lourawls Nairn, Marvin Clark, Alvin Ellis and Matt Costello. The balance continued in the second half with eight scoring (all but Clark).
The defense held Virginia to its lowest shooting percentage of the season (.298), 17-of-57.
2020 simulated, Michigan State beats Indiana
Who played the 2020 roles? A hot game for Winston can translate to 33 points rather than 23 and five if not six field goals in a row. Winston had the Spartans running, and Watts and Aaron Henry matched the contributions from Valentine and Forbes. The eight second-half scorers were Winston, Watts, Henry, Xavier Tillman, Malik Hall, Gabe Brown, Kyle Ahrens and Thomas Kithier.
2015, Michigan State defeated Oklahoma, 62-58.
The Spartans were down 18-8 before they found their rhythm and made it a back-and-forth game the rest of way. They took their first lead at 44-42 on a Brendan Dawson 8-foot jumper with 9:32 left in the game and went ahead for good (48-47) when Matt Costello dunked a put back of his own miss with 6:46 remaining.
Valentine’s pull-up three-pointer in transition was good for a 51-47 lead and Trice’s 3-pointer a minute later for a 54-49 edge.
In the final minute, Valentine and Trice were 4-of-4 from the free throw line for leads of 60-56 and the final score of 62-58. Trice’s two were with 14 seconds left while clinging to a two-point lead. Georgia missed a three-pointer with 10 seconds and the Spartans rebounded the ball to run out the clock.
Trice was 4-of-9 from three-point range for 24 points and Valentine 4-of-11 for 18. Dawson and Costello had timely buckets despite Dawson only scoring six points with his 11 rebounds and Costello only two while coming off the bench.
2020 simulated, Michigan State beats Creighton.
Who played the 2020 roles? Winston and Henry take over the game in the roles of Trice and Valentine. Tillman easily is capable of Dawson’s role, influencing the game with his rebounds on a night his scoring is limited. Marcus Bingham comes up with a key dunk off the bench in Costello’s role.
2015, Michigan State defeated Louisville in OT, 76-70.
Forbes again tapped his future NBA skills as he hit 4-of-6 three-pointers to compensate for Trice (3-of-10) and Valentine (1-of-5) missing from long range. Forbes also was 2-of-2 from the line for 14 points.
Michigan State fought back from a 40-32 halftime deficit to take the lead 54-51 on a three-pointer from Forbes with 8:23 to play. The Spartans maintained their lead, although they were fortunate that while leading only 65-64 with four seconds remaining in regulation, Louisville’s Mangok Mathiang hit only 1-of-2 free throws to force OT.
In overtime, Trice hit a three-pointer just 25 seconds in to the extra session, Forbes hit two free throws for a 70-66 lead and Trice sealed it with two free throws for the final 76-70 with 10 seconds to play.
Who played the 2020 roles? Brown again fills Forbes’ role off the bench. Winston hits the timely three-pointers and free throws that Trice made.
2015, Duke defeated Michigan State 80-61.
The Spartans’ 2015 season came to an end with a 27-12 when they lost to eventual national champion Duke, 80-61.
The Blue Devils drove the ball early and often for baskets. Duke shot 52 percent for the game, while the aggressive driving puts the Spartans in foul trouble; four playes finished with four fouls. Michigan State was outrebounded 36-33 and lost the turnover battle 14-8.
Valentine scored 22, Trice 16 and Dawson 12, but starters Lourawls Nairn and Marvin Clark combined for only three points. Forbes scored only three off the bench.
2020 semis simulated, Michigan State beats Maryland, 95-75.
2020 national championship, Michigan State defeats Gonzaga, 81-77.
In the simulated Four Four, the 2020 Spartans had more than Trice playing with All-American-like results. Winston, a true All-American with Final Four experience from 2019, scored 27 points in both the semifinals and final. Twenty-seven was his magic number, having hit that total in the regular-season finale against Ohio State that clinched a share of the Big Ten title.
In the NCAA final, Winston hit two free throws with 18 seconds remaining to seal the victory. The 2020 season has a storybook finish for the consummate team leader forced to overcome a family tragedy.
Winston’s emotions outshine during the “One Shining Moment” image from the photo of Izzo and a tearful Mateen Cleaves following the 2000 national title.
Magic Johnson, the greatest Spartan ofall with a statue outside the Breslin Center built on Michigan State's 1979 national title, again plays the role of No. 1 Michigan State fan. He sways with a Prince rhythm wile holding a sign that reads: "We're going to party like its 1979."
Jud Heathcote was looking down on his two favorite teams -- coached by surrogate sons Izzo and Gonzaga’s Mark Few -- on a special night that will be tough to duplicte.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”