Branden Dawson

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No. 7 Michigan State reaches the Final Four for the seventh time under Izzo

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While speaking to reporters on Saturday afternoon, Louisville’s star forward Montrezl Harrell made sure to let everyone know what we already know about him.

“I don’t take any plays off,” he said. “I go in and make sure I play 110 percent every play.”

He’s right. There may not be a player in the country that goes harder than Harrell does. But he made sure to add some fuel to the fire when asked about Branden Dawson, his Michigan State counterpart at the power forward spot.

“I haven’t seen too many players play with the energy that I play,” Harrell said. “If he has as much energy as me it should be a good game tomorrow. I don’t see him running with as much energy as I have.”

On Sunday afternoon, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, it was Dawson who made the biggest plays. In overtime between No. 7 Michigan State and No. 4 Louisville, Dawson blocked two shots, had a strip that led to a turnover and, most importantly, tipped in a missed Bryn Forbes three with 30 seconds left to give the Spartans a 74-70 lead.

All four are what you might call “energy plays”.

Dawson finished with nine points, 11 boards and four blocks while Travis Trice and Denzel Valenite combined for 32 points and 11 assists as the Spartans advanced to the Final Four for the seventh time under Tom Izzo, beating the Cards 76-70. This is their first trip to college basketball’s final weekend since 2009, when the Spartans lost to North Carolina in the national title game. They haven’t won a national title since 1999, and given who they’ll be joined by in Indianapolis — Kentucky, Wisconsin and either Duke or Gonzaga — it’s hard to imagine the Spartans snapping that streak this season.

But as recently as a month ago, it was hard to imagine that the Spartans could even make it this far in the NCAA tournament. They lost to Minnesota at home two weeks before the regular season ended. They lost to Illinois at home in early February. They lost to Nebraska, and, back in December, they lost at home to Texas Southern.

That’s not exactly awe-inspiring.

Then again, this is Tom Izzo we’re talking about.

There’s a reason you never bet against Izzo in the NCAA tournament. If it wasn’t for Shabazz Napier and last year’s UConn Huskies, every player that Tom Izzo has recruited that has spent four years on campus would have played in the Final Four. This year’s coaching performance is as impressive as any Izzo has ever had, from getting Dawson to play hard on every possession to molding Travis Trice into a point guard to the decision to play Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn and Trice together in the back court.

But it may not be his best.

Izzo is the first coach to ever lead a team to the Final Four three times as a No. 5 seed or lower, and he now has 12 NCAA tournament wins as the lower seed, which is a record.

That should tell you all you need to know about this coach and this team.

Tom Izzo, No. 7 Michigan State advance to Elite 8 with 62-58 win over No. 3 Oklahoma

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Michigan State, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, defeated No. 3 Oklahoma, 62-58, on Friday night inside the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. The Spartans will play No. 4 Louisville for a shot at the Final Four.

The Spartans held off a late comeback bid from the Sooners, hitting all six free throws in the final 80 seconds of regulation.

Travis Trice had another good showing in the NCAA tournament with a game-high 24 points while Denzel Valentine added 18. Buddy Hield led Oklahoma with 21 points.

It wasn’t until 9:30 left in the game that Michigan State took its first lead. Just over two minutes later, Oklahoma would recapture the lead with a TaShawn Thomas layup. However, that’d be the Sooners only field goal in an eight and half minute span. That slump didn’t snap until Hield hit a second-chance three with just over a minute to go, cutting the deficit to 58-56. From there Michigan State closed it out from the line.

The win for Michigan State sets up Sunday’s matchup between two coaching greats — Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo — who have both been terrific this March. As I mentioned earlier in the night, Pitino dismissed Chris Jones from the program last month, yet finds his team in another Elite 8; the third time in four years.

This time last year, No. 4 seeded Michigan State was a trendy pick to be the national champion. Every four-year player under Izzo had reached at least one Final Four entering the 2014 NCAA Tournament, however, eventual champion UConn ended that streak in the Elite 8 along with the careers of Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. Sophomore Gary Harris decided to declare for the NBA Draft, leaving Izzo with some experience, but no stars.

That was apparent in November when the Spartans played the role of odd man out in the Champions Classic double-header. Each of the other participants — Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State’s opponent that night, Duke — all had their share of McDonald’s All-Americans, compared to only one (Dawson) for Michigan State.

Yet, here they are, relying on the play of Trice, Valentine and Dawson, all of whom have had their share of NCAA tournament experience.

Two unlikely runs converge on Sunday between Louisville and Michigan State, but only one will continue on the road to Indianapolis.

Tom Izzo and No. 7 Michigan State advance to the Round of 32 with a 70-63 win over Georgia

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Four missed shots and two turnovers in the opening four minutes was not an ideal start for No. 7 Michigan State in the Round of 64 contest against No. 10 Georgia. Nearly blowing a 12-point lead in the final two minutes isn’t exactly how Sparty wanted to end the game either.

However, it is March and it is Tom Izzo, and once again Michigan State is advancing in the NCAA Tournament, knocking off Georgia, 70-63, on Saturday afternoon.

The Spartans were plus-eight on the glass, which helped spark the transition offense along with early turnovers from the Bulldogs.

Despite battling foul trouble in the first half Branden Dawson scored 14 points. He was one of four Spartans in double figures along with Denzel Valentine (16), Travis Trice (15) and Bryn Forbes (14), who combined to shoot 7-of-16 from beyond the 3-point line.

It was that 3-point shooting and ability to get on the fast break that helped Michigan State not only take the lead, but build on it, taking a 13-point into the locker room after ending the first half with an 8-0 run. The Spartans were able to maintain that lead as well. A 4-point play from Bryn Forbes bumped the lead back up to a baker’s dozen with inside eight minutes to play. It looked like Michigan State had put the game out of reach after Dawson and Valentine converted on back-to-back buckets, putting the Spartans up 64-52 with 2:05 left, but then Michigan State went on cruise control.

The Bulldogs attempted a final comeback, going on a 9-2 run to cut it to a one-possession game at 66-63 with 20 seconds to play, though, their efforts were too little, too late. After struggling from the line as a team, Valentine iced the game with four straight free throws.

Michigan State gets the winner of No. 2 Virginia and No. 15 Belmont on Sunday.