Spartans, Tom Izzo full of (shouldn't-be) surprises

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It’s Final Four No. 7 for Izzo — and this one was hard to see coming. (AP/Post-Standard, Kevin Rivoli)

This is where I’d brag about correctly picking three of the Final Four teams in my Sun-Times bracket … if I thought I could get away with it.

Really, though, only a Captain Obvious would take a bow for picking unbeaten Kentucky to make it out of the Midwest Region. Two of my other picks were fellow No. 1 seeds Wisconsin (West) and Duke (South), which didn’t take a whole lot of imagination. And then there’s the whole Michigan State thing.

Can I just say I’m blown away by the Spartans?

I had them going out in the Round of 32 against Virginia, a matchup I felt was nearly hopeless for Izzo’s team. The Cavaliers appeared to me to be quicker, tougher, more talented and more disciplined, but it was MSU that was all of those things in a victory that seemed to give the Spartans old-fashioned Izzo mojo for the first time all season.

Still, I thought Louisville would beat the Spartans in the Elite 8 on the strength of the Cardinals’ athleticism. But it was MSU playing higher above the rim and making all the acrobatic plays in the second half and in overtime of its thrilling victory.

Guess what? I’m picking Duke to handle MSU in the Final Four in Indianapolis. I was there early this season when the Blue Devils handled the Spartans in Indy, and it just doesn’t seem like a good matchup for Izzo’s crew. Will I ever learn?

Recently I answered a reader’s question about the best coaches in the country; I said John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski and Bo Ryan were a cut above all the rest. But why would I omit Izzo, who has been to seven Final Fours in the last 17 years? And think about it: Ryan has Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Krzyzewski has Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Kentucky has Kart-Anthony Towns and fellow blue-chips galore.

Izzo? He has no one the NBA is salivating over. He has veteran guys whom he has developed into competitive monsters. It’s beyond impressive. It’s brilliance.

Mutual admiration

For a while leading into Selection Sunday, Wisconsin was widely projected as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, with Kentucky as the No. 1. Had that scenario developed, the Badgers potentially would’ve had to face the Wildcats in the Elite 8 — with only a couple days, rather than a full week, to prepare. Ryan made no secret that he thought it would be a disadvantage to his team, and he was compelling in saying so.

But guess what? The feeling was mutual; Kentucky didn’t want to have to face the Badgers in a quick turnaround, either. Calipari believes Saturday’s nail-biter over Notre Dame was so close in large part because the Irish offense is complex and precise — much like Wisconsin’s.

“I’m glad we’ve got a week to prepare for them,” said seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, UK’s top defender. “Great team. The way they play together is the best in the country. I’m glad we don’t have one day to prepare for them. One day to prepare for a team like Notre Dame, that’s why we couldn’t stop them.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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