At the press conference following Michigan State basketball’s 78-74 victory over the #1-ranked Kentucky Wildcats Tuesday night, a reporter asked Keith Appling to put this game into perspective. And Appling — who is turning into the player that championship teams must have right before our very eyes — said what you’d expect: “We didn’t accomplish anything tonight.”
Of course, Appling’s point was that this victory did not give MSU a trophy, a banner or a championship. But Izzo didn’t allow him to get to that part of his answer. He interrupted him, playfully slapping him on his arm.
“Didn’t accomplish anything?” Izzo said with a smile. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Appling smiled back, knowing that what his coach was saying was true. This win was a big deal.
In case you hadn’t heard, the eyes of college basketball were trained on Chicago Tuesday night. All the big guns were there – not only 4 of the top 5 teams in the country, but all of the sports’ personalities, reporters and stars. Pregame, the media buffet was packed with everybody who was anybody in sports journalism and entertainment.
In this setting, the Spartans were the new kids on the block. The United Center was chock full of basketball blue-bloods… literally. Different shades of blue… Devils, Jayhawks and Wildcats… packed the arena to the rafters.
They’ve been there, done that. This was normal for them. So normal, in fact, that I didn’t see a student section from any of them. Then there was the Green in the midst of all the blue. Representing in full force. MSU’s ticket allotment completely sold out. In fact, approximately 300 Izzone members paid $65 to ride a bus to and from Chicago and sit as far away as possible from the court. They were loud. Trying to prove that they belong in this company.
In the big picture, we must excuse the Spartan fans who doubted that it’s team could pull off something of this magnitude. Izzo coaches for March. It’s true. The fans know it. He’ll sacrifice a November loss for a learning experience for his team. Playing anytime and anywhere is Izzo’s mantra. But more often than not — especially lately — it ended in defeat.
Add to that history the fact that the Spartans haven’t been to the Final Four since 2010. Mix in some fans’ perception that Izzo is not as hot on the recruiting trail as he once was. The result is a worrisome mixture for Spartan fans – that this year HAS to be the year.
So, as I walked around the United Center Tuesday night, talking to the Spartans in the cheap seats, I saw fans who were confident on the outside yet understandably wobbly on the inside. Here, on college basketball’s biggest stage outside of March Madness, it was normal for Michigan State fans to look around and think, “do we truly belong here?”
The Spartans, led by seniors Appling and Adreian Payne, answered that question with an emphatic yes. On a night that has been in the works for 3 years and anticipated as the cherry on top of an ESPN hoops marathon sundae, the Champions Classic did not disappoint.
The United Center was abuzz when the Spartans jumped out to a huge first half lead, showing the young pups from Kentucky what teamwork and experience looked like. Then the halftime adjustments were made and the Wildcats came all the way back. MSU fans in the crowd were understandably concerned. This would be a horrible way to lose.
But after Kentucky tied the game at 66, the Spartans used an Appling 3-pointer and a Gary Harris steal-and-finish on the inbounds pass to take a lead that it wouldn’t give back.
As the buzzer sounded and Harris celebrated at midcourt with his #1 finger pointing to the sky, the Spartan fans who were hesitant to believe that their team would pull off the win, celebrated.
This win meant a lot. To fans who were concerned that the early season losses of the past would bite them again this year. To the players, who dug down deep and made the plays when they needed to be made. And to Izzo who said after the game that this was a “program win.”
Nights like this prove that the Spartans are a legitimate national program. Not a poser. After re-upping for 3 more years of the Champions Classic earlier in the week, the Spartans came out and showed the elite that it belonged. After the nightcap game between Kansas and Duke ended, I compiled the results for the first 3 years of the Champions Classic:
1. Duke 2-1 (lost to Kansas)
2. MSU 2-1 (lost to Duke)
3. Kentucky 1-2 (beat Kansas)
4. Kansas 1-2 (beat Duke)
In a 3-year competition against the nation’s elite, MSU more than held its own. It finished in 2nd place for this go-round and got invited back for 3 more games.
One win on a Tuesday night in mid-November doesn’t make a program, no matter who the competition is. A loss wouldn’t have dropped the Spartans from the national image it has earned for itself with sustained excellence for the better part of two decades.
But the victory over Kentucky offers reassurance. It reinforces to the players, coaches, alumni, fans… and recruits… that Tom Izzo’s Michigan State program deserves its place near the top of college basketball’s elite.