Year-long battle cry of Spartan men’s basketball team nets 18th consecutive NCAA tourney appearance
By Matt Mitchell
What a season! We held our breath. We slapped our heads. And then, the Spartans were on a roll determined to achieve their year-long quest. INDY!
In his 20th year at the helm, Izzo has now guided the Spartans to 18 consecutive NCAA appearances, a Big Ten record, and tied for the fourth-longest streak in NCAA history.
As always, the season progressed like a three-act play.
Act 1 – Non-Conference Play.
True to form, the schedule brimmed with powerhouse competition. MSU suffered losses to No. 4 Duke, No. 11 Kansas, and ultimate ACC champion Notre Dame. As always, every tough loss (including a shocker against Texas Southern) helped the Spartans win close games by tournament time.
Act 2 – The Conference Race.
The first year of the Big Ten’s expansion to 14 teams resulted in the Spartans facing eight opponents only once during the season. Games were close. Four went into OT, including a 96-90 loss to Minnesota. Games were hard-fought, like the bruising 72-64 win over Purdue. The Spartans finished third in the Big Ten behind the league’s two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally—Wisconsin and Maryland.
As the season advanced, the team gelled as an unselfish unit confident in each other and their coaches. Freshman Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. joined the starting rotation as point guard, freeing up senior Travis Trice to run opponents in circles and posing a threat to make long-distance threes or drive through defenders for a lay-up. With his extraordinary athleticism, senior Branden Dawson soared above the rim, bringing down rebounds or blocking shots with fierce intensity. Junior Denzel Valentine rounded out the leadership trio with a spectacular season racking up baskets, rebounds, and assists, often while assigned to defend the opponent’s most dangerous player. Throughout Acts 1 and 2, Trice, Dawson and Valentine held on to one shared goal—INDY and the Final Four.
Act 3 – Post-Season Play
By the end of February, MSU was seen as a possible ‘bubble team’ in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. But then there was March—the month of Izzo and quality wins to close the regular season. At the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, the Spartans defeated Ohio State and Maryland on consecutive days before dropping a heartbreaker (in OT) to Wisconsin in the championship game.
The late season performance was enough to secure a berth in the NCAA East region. All the lessons learned in close wins and tough losses paid dividends as the Spartans made believers of skeptics and had sports pundits across the nation reciting a single mantra: “You don’t bet against Tom Izzo in March.”
In Charlotte, NC, the Spartans held off the Georgia Bulldogs, 70-63, and went on to defeat the favorite, Virginia Cavaliers, 60-54, to earn a trip to Syracuse.
It was the Sweet Sixteen. MSU came from a four-point deficit at the half to overcome the Oklahoma Sooners, 62-58, before facing their third higher-ranked team of the tournament, Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals.
Although Louisville led by eight at halftime, Trice, Valentine and Dawson willed a determined Spartan squad to leave it all on the floor. Regulation ended at 70-all, and the Spartans were in their eighth OT of the year. The Cardinals never scored another point. Bryn Forbes opened the extra period with a three, Dawson put back a Forbes miss to make it 74-70, and Trice sealed the win with a pair of free throws. The Spartans had reached the Final Four.
In Indianapolis the season was ended, for the second year in a row, by the eventual national champion. It was a great run nonetheless. Despite 18 consecutive NCAA appearances, six prior Final Fours, and a national championship, Tom Izzo’s 2014-15 Spartans were labeled a dark horse, a long-shot, Cinderella, and the team you love to watch. On April 9, Izzo summed up his team’s grit: “We had more than a few guys that—Man! — they gave us everything they have.”
Spartan Women’s Basketball
Team BESET by Injuries
Nevertheless, two sophomores emerge as bona fide superstars
By Robert Bao
Injuries and a transfer marred the MSU women’s basketball team this year. Still, the team eked out a winning season with a 16-15 record.
With two Spartans suffering knee injuries, another a head injury, and a fourth who transferred mid-season, a pair of sophomore guards—Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska—carried the load. They were the brightest stars on a squad that missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
Powers continued her standout career with her second First Team All-Big Ten selection; Jankoska earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors.
All told, Powers averaged 21.9 points per game and 12.1 rebounds per contest to set new single-season highs for both scoring (626) and rebounding (375). She ranked in the top 10 in the nation in both categories.
Meanwhile, Jankoska followed up a successful freshman campaign with an impressive season herself. The former Miss Basketball in Michigan averaged 17.5 points with 6.9 rebounds per game, while leading the team with nearly four assists per game. She notched 68 three-pointers this season, tying for fifth on MSU’s single-season three-pointers list. Her 132 career treys put her at No. 8 on MSU’s career three-pointers list.
Senior Becca Mills finished her college career by starting all 31 games to notch 100 career starts, becoming just the 10th Spartan ever to do so. Mills also finished her career with 91 blocked shots—the seventh highest in program history.
“I am incredibly proud of what this year’s team accomplished under such challenging circumstances. While we could have participated in postseason play, after talking with our senior student-athletes (and our entire team), it truly is in our student-athletes’ best interest right now to rest, recover and then we can begin to prepare for the future as the spring unfolds,” Coach Suzy Merchant said.