Everyone in the country with an opinion had a theory as to why Michigan State was struggling to start the season.
For Spartans head coach Tom Izzo, the issue was easy to identify — his team had bought into the idea that they could just turn it on in March and cruise into the Final Four.
“If we think that we’re going to win because we went to two straight Final Fours, that’s not going to work,” Izzo told reporters Monday.
For 37 minutes and 21 seconds on Tuesday night against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, it looked like nothing had changed. Michigan State was down 51-42 to a Wisconsin team that had won 34 of their last 35 games when they were tied or ahead with four minutes left.
Then all of a sudden, something clicked.
The Spartan’s defense woke up as they got stops when they needed stops. Their press forced Wisconsin into turnovers. They stopped settling for jumpers and started to attack with the dribble. They moved the ball offensively. They went to the offensive glass. And after Draymond Green — who finished with a career-high 26 points to go along with nine rebounds, four assists, and two blocks — drove past his man and found Korie Lucious open for a three to tie the game with 52 seconds left, the game was headed to overtime.
In overtime, Green scored the first eight points for the Spartans, answering Wisconsin every time they took the lead. After Jordan Taylor tied the game with a minute to go, Kalin Lucas hit 3-4 free throws in the last 30 seconds to give the Spartans a much-needed 64-61 win.
“We talk about having a character check,” Izzo said after the game. “I’ve never seen a bunch of guys get knocked down more times than we got knocked down, and in every huddle, they still thought they could win.”
For the last 2:39 of regulation and for five minutes in overtime, we caught a glimpse of what this Michigan State team can be when they play the way we expect them too.
The question now becomes whether or not this can last.
And that is a tough question to answer.
This Spartan team doesn’t intimidate opponents this season. They aren’t overpowering inside, as Delvon Roe, Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix and big bodies full of potential that have not yet lived up to their hype. Kalin Lucas is not yet the Kalin Lucas from last season as he recovers from a ruptured achilles, let alone the Kalin Lucas that won the 2009 Big Ten player of the year award. Durrell Summers hasn’t consistently been the Durrell Summers that carried this team through the Midwest Regional last season. Draymond Green still has a tendency to turn into a jump shooter.
This is a good win for Michigan State, more for their confidence than their resume.
The last seven minutes and 39 seconds is a stepping stone for them to jump start their season.
Only time will tell if they actually take advantage of that opportunity.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.