Prior to the season, I was as sold on Maryland as I could be. Picked the Terps to win the national title and everything.
In my Sun-Times season preview, I listed nine other teams — Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Iowa State, Duke, Gonzaga and Indiana — I thought were capable of winning it all.
Some hits in that group, and some misses.
Yet what disappoints — frankly, embarrasses — me now is that I failed to see Michigan State coming.
A team I picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten — behind Maryland, Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue — turned out to be not only the best in the conference, but, I believe, the best in the land.
Forget about the NCAA Tournament’s impossible-to-understand decision to make Michigan State a No. 2 seed. What have we seen with our own eyes from these Spartans?
They’ve won nine in a row — including the Big Ten tournament — and 13 of 14, the only defeat in that stretch coming by one point in overtime at Purdue.
They opened the season on a 13-0 tear, the highlight being a big victory over Kansas, which now is the No. 1 overall seed.
In between came a difficult stretch that stemmed from an injury to senior guard Denzel Valentine, who nonetheless got his groove back and eventually joined Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield on everybody’s short list for national player of the year.
Valentine — I didn’t even have him on my preseason All-American second team (ouch) — is one of the great performers of Tom Izzo’s time in East Lansing. He’s a triple-double threat every time he steps onto the floor, and he makes teammates better. Ask senior sharpshooter Bryn Forbes about that. Ask senior big man Matt Costello. They’ll tell you they owe much of their success to No. 45.
“We’re not done yet,” Valentine said Sunday after the Spartans avenged that loss to Purdue by beating the Boilermakers for the Big Ten tourney title. “We’ve got six more games. … We’ve got to win the national championship.”
Along the way could come some delectable story lines.
I’ve got MSU meeting No. 1 seed Virginia in the Midwest regional final, and wouldn’t it be crazy if the Spartans were to knock a program as terrific as Tony Bennett’s from the Big Dance for a third consecutive year? Maybe the Atlantic Coast Conference shouldn’t have had two No. 1s after all.
And it’ll be extraordinary theater — so good, you couldn’t make it up — if Valentine shares the stage with Hield in the national championship game. Who’s the man? Once and for all, we’ll find out.
Final Four: Michigan State over Kentucky. Oklahoma over Maryland. Michigan State over Oklahoma.
At least that’s what my bracket says. I’m all over Valentine and the Spartans. I’m not failing again to see them coming.
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