Tom Izzo's 2013-14 whirlwind of a season might be one he wishes not to repeat. Michigan State finished with a 29-9 final record, a Big Ten tournament championship and an Elite Eight birth. But no numbers or achievements can express the complexity of its campaign.
First, the Spartans quieted one of the most highly talented Kentucky teams ever assembled on a national stage to kick things off. And they didn't stop there.
State shot out to a 18-1 start, displaying its fortitude and clearly proving capable to threaten for another Izzo-esque Final Four. Despite the nagging injuries suffered by numerous players, Sparty dug deep and started off its Big Ten season with seven straight wins.
But then it went downhill.
A disappointing loss to its in-state adversary Michigan served as a harbinger for a dreadful string of games following it. The Spartans went on to lose half of their next 12 contests, discovering that the injury "bug" was more like a "plague," one that would seemingly perpetuate itself until just games before the conference tournament.
Branden Dawson's enigmatic mood swings overshadowed his occasional dominant performances. Adreian Payne's senior season was interrupted abruptly and harshly by complicating ankle problems. Matt Costello and Travis Trice fought through illnesses and Keith Appling battled through a debilitating wrist.
Name any possible injury, and the Spartans probably experienced it.
The stretch of inconsistent play was frustrating for Izzo and his squad. Inexplicably, opposing teams were beating State at its own game, with defensive discipline and toughness.
An inexcusable home loss to an inexperienced Illinois team concluded the Spartans' treacherous play. Then, their fortunes started to switch.
State followed up with an impressive, high-octane offensive performance against Iowa, which completed the sweep of the Hawkeyes. Sparty registered 86 points behind a resurgent Appling and a ubiquitous Denzel Valentine.
Despite the subsequent loss to Ohio State, the outlook was encouraging for a talented team that had returned all of its weapons. A two-point defeat in Value City Arena certainly wasn't something to be ashamed of, especially considering the limited practice time that the full team had.
At that point, Izzo and company had survived. That was all that mattered. The onslaught of injuries had finally ceased, the lineup returned to full strength and the complementary players gained valuable minutes while the key players were sidelined.
In a way, those setbacks were slowly becoming blessings. That notion was validated in State's domination of the Big Ten tournament, when the Spartans prevailed in each game by at least eight points en route to a conference tournament crown.
Dawson, who was either the third or fourth offensive option, was named the tournament's most outstanding player, and the Spartans looked frightening. They quickly became one of the nation's most vaunted squads, and the No. 4 seed placed next to their name was a travesty after their recent performances.
Just days later, they continued that hot play. Sparty rolled through a high-powered Delaware offense, then outlasted Harvard in the Round of 32 and then gritted out a win against No. 1 seeded Virginia.
At that moment, the Spartans had won six straight and proved they could prevail in any type of ballgame. They had overcome injuries all season long, which had adequately prepared them for the inevitable adversity that they would eventually face.
But disappointingly, that proved to be too great. Head coach Kevin Ollie and Connecticut forced the Spartans into attempting 29 three-point shots as the Huskies marched on. While Michigan State was probably more talented and experienced, Connecticut outlasted State behind Shabazz Napier's fearless 25-point performance.
It seemed like a sour ending for a team that was poised to win the entire tournament. It certainly wasn't how many envisioned it ending.
But Michigan State's season was anything but a disappointment.
No other relevant national power sustained even close to the number of injuries that these Spartans did. Every single contributor missed at least two games, with the exception of Valentine. Those setbacks ranged from mononucleosis to a broken hand from punching a desk.
At any of those points, this team could've easily folded. Instead, it banded together.
Through its impressive six-game winning streak heading into the Elite Eight, these Spartans defeated Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia, all of which were either No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the Big Dance.
Unfortunately for Sparty, that six-game winning streak came just three contests too early. Still, even during that streak, Appling was playing far less than 100 percent healthy. Once a 15-point per game scorer earlier in the season, he found himself averaging merely three shots per game during the NCAA tournament.
But the rest of the team still found ways to compensate, whether it was Payne's 41-point outburst against Delaware, or Dawson's 25 points per game through the next two rounds, or Trice's 19-point showing in its opening NCAA tournament game. This squad refused to quit, and that resiliency shouldn't be mistaken or overlooked.
It is impressive for any team to make an Elite Eight. And while Izzo's streak of at least one Final Four per four seasons was snapped, the fact that this particular team, with all of the adversity it had to overcome, came just short of another Final Four is remarkable.
This Michigan State squad won't go down as one of the best teams in the program's history. But its 2013-14 season is certainly one to remember.
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