Doubters seemingly flocked to East Lansing, Michigan on a weekly basis to see what edition of the Spartans would show up for that night’s contest. Despite the folks who didn’t believe in Michigan State’s abilities, the coaching staff and the players believed in themselves, and they advanced all the way to the Final Four.
In the end, it wasn’t the result the team was looking for, as they fell to the mighty Duke Blue Devils by a final score of 81-61. With that, the careers of Branden Dawson and Travis Trice are done in East Lansing. Both seniors came into their own this season, and had a huge impact on the younger players on the roster.
However, before the journey ends, it had to begin somewhere. This is the journey of the 2014-15 Michigan State Spartans, who evolved into “America’s Team” over the course of their miraculous run to the NCAA Tournament.
When the first game of the season tipped off, Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans found themselves ranked inside the top 25. With the likes of Dawson, Trice, Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes on the roster, it was no surprise to see Michigan State’s name in the rankings. It was known that this year’s edition of the Spartans wouldn’t be as strong as in year’s past, and they would have to work harder to get where they wanted to go.
Michigan State struggled on the road in their season opener, beating Navy by just five points. In their second game, they took on Duke in the Champions Classic. The Blue Devils knocked off the Spartans by 10, and the loss would start a trend for the Spartans when playing marquee opponents.
In non-conference play, the Spartans struggled to score a win over a top-tier opponent. They lost back-to-back games against Kansas, in the finals of the Orlando Classic, and then to Notre Dame in the ACC-Big Ten challenge.
Then, Michigan State would sink to a low that they arguably haven’t seen in years.
The Spartans welcomed the Texas Southern Tigers to town in a game that they were projected to win in a landslide. As is the case so often in sports, predictions are just that. The game needed overtime, which was shocking enough. But, when the final buzzer went off and Texas Southern came away with a 71-64 victory over the Spartans, people started to question the talent of Michigan State.
As Big Ten progressed, the Spartans were an up-and-down team. Their struggles at the free throw line were well-documented all season long. As their free throws went down, the team won. When they were missing their free throws, the team lost. It was as simple as that, and it led to a bunch of speculation around the team as to whether or not they would make the NCAA Tournament.
On February 7th, the Spartans were sitting at 6-4 in Big Ten play, and it looked as though they were in jeopardy of missing the field of 68. That’s when things started to click for the green and white, and they turned things around in a big way.
Michigan State would close out the regular season with eight wins over their last 10 games, earning a share of 2nd place in the Big Ten standings. They earned the #3 seed in the conference tournament, and had the look of a team who couldn’t be stopped.
They rolled over Ohio State and Maryland to reach the finals of the Big Ten tournament, setting up a rematch with the Wisconsin Badgers. The Spartans took the Badgers to overtime, but were held off the scoreboard in the 80-69 loss. Despite the defeat, Michigan State was flying high into the NCAA Tournament, and would continue their strong play.
On Selection Sunday, the Spartans were awarded the #7 seed in the East Region, and fans and so-called experts wrote them off early. That provided more fuel for the Spartans’ fire, and the team kept on rolling along.
The Spartans knocked off the pesky Georgia Bulldogs in the Round of 64, before disposing of the #2 seed Virginia Cavaliers to reach the Sweet 16. This is where most people had the Spartans exiting the tournament, but they proved them wrong yet again. They used a big second half comeback to knock off the Oklahoma Sooners, setting up a tilt with the Louisville Cardinals in the Elite Eight.
Again, Michigan State needed a big second half comeback, as they trailed Louisville by eight points at the break. The Spartans would end up knocking off Louisville, 76-70, and the Spartans were on their way to their 7th Final Four in the last 17 years.
The Final Four matchup didn’t go as planned, as the Duke Blue Devils overcame a slow start to pummel the Spartans by 20 points, 81-61. Michigan State came out strong, opening the game on a 14-6 run, but couldn’t sustain that positive momentum. The Blue Devils’ talent took over, and Michigan State didn’t stand a chance.
Despite their free throw struggles, the Spartans showed that they belonged in the Final Four, and they earned their way there. They didn’t have anything handed to them, and earned everything they got this season.
As the season progressed, it was clear that these Spartans weren’t the most talented. Their top recruit, Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, was ranked 73rd by ESPN Recruiting Nation. They lacked the star appeal in comparison to other teams, but they never gave up. Senior guard Travis Trice developed into a floor general, and passed the reigns off to Nairn as the season progressed. Nairn is widely considered as one of the best young point guards in the country, and it’s not for his scoring abilities. He is a pure leader and a pass-first guard that will excel in Tom Izzo’s systems over the next few years.
Fellow senior Branden Dawson had his work ethic questioned throughout the season, but his impact on this team is indescribable. When he put in the effort, he was one of the best players in the country. He was a double-double machine in conference play, and his energy gave the Spartans a boost when they needed it the most. Both Trice and Dawson will be missed dearly in East Lansing.
Things still look bright for Michigan State, as they begin preparations for the 2015-16 season. Junior guard Denzel Valentine enjoyed a breakout season in 2014-15, averaging 14.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per contest. If he chooses to stay for a senior campaign, he will be looked upon to carry the offense in terms of scoring.
The aforementioned Nairn should be back to control the offense from the point, and big men Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello should also be back in a Spartan uniform. Freshmen Marvin Clark and Javon Bess will be back, plus sophomore Alvin Ellis III will return, barring any changes between now and the start of next season. Sharp-shooting Bryn Forbes should also be back, which will give the Spartans a viable second scoring option, alongside Valentine.
One key player for the Spartans will be West Virginia transfer Eron Harris. The guard was ineligible to play this year due to transfer restrictions, but will be on the active roster in 2015-16. The 6-foot-3 guard will provide the team with a much-needed boost.
The recruiting class for the Spartans has already seen an improvement over that of last offseason. Deyonta Davis, the 15th-ranked recruit by ESPN, has already committed to Michigan State for the 2015-16 season. The 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward will add some extra size to the Spartans’ front court, which is an area they lacked in this past season. Add in shooting guard Matt McQuaid, and the Spartans have some high-profile recruits coming to East Lansing.
If all of the players who are eligible to return do just that, here is an early look at a possible starting lineup for Tom Izzo’s squad next season:
G: Lourawls Nairn
G: Bryn Forbes
G: Denzel Valentine
F: Marvin Clark, Jr
F: Gavin Schilling
The only one that is questionable in that lineup is Marvin Clark. One could make the argument that Davis should start in his place, so keep an eye on that situation as the offseason gets rolling.
Regardless, this season had its ups and downs for the Spartans, but the team never quit. When the going got tough, the Spartans got going and turned things around. They never gave up and they fought as hard as they could, which is what Tom Izzo basketball is all about. They made up for their struggles at the free throw line with strong shooting from long distance and their strong work ethic.
As a Spartans fan, thank you to Travis Trice and Branden Dawson for everything that they gave to the program over their four-year careers in East Lansing. The hard work that was put in has set them up for a bright future, whether it is in basketball or otherwise.
Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans are in great shape moving forwards, and look for the team to be back in contention in the Big Ten conference in 2015-16. The Spartans will be back and ready to play some old school Spartan basketball as they look to make it back to the Final Four.
Go green, go white!