Michigan State headlines group of title-hungry teams in Minneapolis

While the Spartans won the Big Ten’s last NCAA championship in 2000, the other teams are seeking their first.

by Nick Jungheim

Michigan State entered its Feb. 9 game against Minnesota after losing three-straight contests. Following a 79-55 victory on that day, the Spartans won 14 out of 15 games, including a 70-50 victory over the Gophers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The meeting in February took place in East Lansing, Michigan, and the NCAA Tournament game was played in Des Moines, Iowa. Now, Minnesota will play host to the Spartans and three other teams at the 2019 NCAA Final Four taking place at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“I think we’re as excited as anyone to be here,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. “The facility is great, Minneapolis is great. We feel fortunate to be here and yet we feel we earned our way to be here.”

In order to advance to the Final Four, the Spartans had to overcome the tournament-favorite Duke Blue Devils, led by freshman phenom Zion Williamson. Thanks to a 20-point performance from unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection Cassius Winston, Michigan State edged past the Blue Devils 68-67 in an instant classic.

The Big Ten sent eight teams, including Minnesota, to the NCAA Tournament this year. Although seven of those teams advanced past the first round, Michigan State is the last one remaining. The Spartans are hoping to give the conference its first championship in men’s basketball since they last won in 2000.

“I think our conference this year was as good as any in the country,” Izzo said. “If we could carry the mantle for our league I’d be double excited, one for Michigan State and one for the Big Ten.”

The Spartans also won a NCAA championship in 1979, meaning they have two in program history. The other three semi-finalists are looking for their first title, including Michigan State’s opponent, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have advanced to new heights thanks to a lock-down defense. The defense held No. 1 seed Gonzaga, the highest scoring team in the nation, to 32 points in the second half of their Sweet 16 match-up. Head coach Chris Beard said the team will enjoy the experience of playing in the Final Four.

“We don’t ever want to be the team that doesn’t enjoy the great cities we get to go to,” Beard said. “We’re going to enjoy life, we’re going to enjoy the ride — it’s who we are. But when it’s time to play, it’s time to play, and when it’s time to practice, it’s time to practice.”

Not to be outdone, Virginia boasts an impressive defense as well. The Cavaliers are the only No. 1 seed to advance to Minneapolis. Their run has erased the demons from last season’s tournament, when they became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the NCAA Tournament’s first round after falling to UMBC 74-54.

“It was about sitting together, talking and working through stuff and battling through it,” said Virginia head coach Tony Bennett of his team’s response to that loss.

Virginia last made the Final Four in 1984, and will play an team making its first Final Four appearance. The Auburn Tigers defeated a gauntlet of traditional powerhouses in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky on their way to Minneapolis.

If Auburn wants to cut down the nets in U.S. Bank Stadium, it will have to do so without one of their star players, sophomore Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in the victory over North Carolina. Despite playing without him, the Tigers defeated Kentucky 77-71 in overtime to reach the Final Four.

“I think the benefit was the fact that we played 36 hours later,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl.  “We truly didn’t have enough time to think about what we’d lost.”

The semifinal games begin Saturday at 5:09 p.m. when Virginia faces Auburn, and then continue at 7:49 p.m. when Michigan State takes on Texas Tech. The respective winners will play in the championship on Monday night.