INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State entered the 2015 Final Four as the heavy underdog thanks to an up-and-down season in which they earned a No. 7 seed entering the NCAA tournament. The Spartans were playing better ball at the end of the year than their tournament seeding might have indicated, but with 11 losses on the season, Michigan State showed it was still prone to stretches of inconsistent play.
Things started to turn around for the Spartans in the second half of the season. Tom Izzo’s team won eight of nine games entering Saturday’s game against Duke and they were playing their best ball of the season entering the Final Four.
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Izzo has been rightfully credited for doing one of his best coaching jobs in helping Michigan State reach the sport’s final weekend, but after going 0-4 against Duke and Wisconsin during the season — and Kentucky entering the weekend unbeaten — the Spartans felt like the weekend’s afterthought.
A promising start on Saturday looked like that could turn things around. Michigan State scored 14 points and shot 5-for-7 from the field in the game’s opening 3:41 and it looked like they could hang with a team that had already beaten them by double digits.
Despite the quick start, things quickly turned on the Spartans when they started to make mental mistakes. Bad shots, turnovers and a large number of fouls helped Duke dominate the final 36 minutes of the game.
“A lot of our turnovers were really unforced. They were kind of on us trying to make the extra play or make the home run play,” senior guard Travis Trice said. “I think that came to bite us tonight. Usually we don’t do that.”
Trying to do too much after a hot start really hurt Michigan State’s chance at staying with Duke on Saturday. They couldn’t capitalize on an early lead when Duke’s defense was gambling a bit and giving up easy looks as their offense went ice cold. At one point, the Spartans went 8 minutes without a field goal.
There is no question the Blue Devils are the more talented team — and there’s a reason they beat the Spartans twice by double digits this season. Michigan State started rushing into some bad shots after that ridiculous start. They initiated their offense way too far away from the basket and let Duke’s dictate the game with its defense. With 14 turnovers on the night, it was the most the Spartans had in that category since January.
Was Michigan State perhaps a little too confident from the perimeter after the hot start? A 4-for-4 start from 3-point range ended up finishing at 7-for-20 from the floor. Izzo said the team had a great week of practice and it didn’t translate into game-long success in Saturday’s game.
“I did not think we played very well. I think Duke had something to do with that, and Michigan State had something to do with that,” Izzo said. “You can’t sit there, and the way we played these last 15 games, we moved that ball early, we got a lot of good shots. We just kind of settled. We kind of settled. That was disappointing. But we got beat by a good team, too.”
Credit certainly goes to Duke’s defense for forcing Michigan State into a lot of bad shots, as the Blue Devils’ smaller starting lineup enabled them to switch every matchup 1-through-4 on Saturday night.
It also didn’t help that the Spartans were once again battling foul trouble and losing the free-throw battle on Saturday.
Junior big man Matt Costello picked up two first-half fouls with Jahlil Okafor on the bench resting. Sophomore forward Gavin Schilling also battled foul trouble and fouled Okafor at one point on a silly touch foul the resulted in an easy and-one finish. Michigan State had to turn to seldom-used reserve Colby Wollenman at one point to be their main rim protector.
Between the Champions Classic and the Final Four, Duke (47-for-63) severely out-shot Michigan State (16-for-26) at the free-throw line, because Duke’s consistency attacking the basket afforded them more opportunities from the line. Izzo cited free throws and turnovers as a major factor in the loss.
“Considering we had some guys in foul trouble and we had our doctor, Colby, in there, the kid is a player. That’s not what beat us,” Izzo said. “What beat us is the free throws and the turnovers. At halftime, we had two assists. We’ve been ranked in the top of the country in assists all year. I thought that was our fault. We moved the ball good early, a lot of good things happened. We got caught making a couple of unforced plays, that was the difference in the game.”
It’s disappointing that Michigan State had some lapses that caused heavily-favored Duke to lead the final 30 minutes of the game, but it also shows just how good of basketball the Spartans were playing down the stretch. Michigan State played great basketball in beating very good teams like Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville to make it to the Final Four and this team bought in at the right time.
They just couldn’t contain the mistakes enough on Saturday to run with another No. 1 seed.