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Another Unforgettable Year, and Another Waiting on the Horizon

You could call 2010 the most frustrating, and most satisfying season, all at the same time.  Each team in the Tom Izzo era has been unique, but the 2010 group seemed to operate more in the extremes.  But what a ride it was, as the Spartans picked up another Big Ten title on the way back to the Final Four.

We all know this team had issues throughout the season, but we’ll probably never know exactly what they were or how much they truly impacted the performance on the court.  Their 2010 record speaks for itself though because in the end, you are what your record is.  The 2010 Spartans will hang a couple impressive banners.  Very few programs around the country can say that this spring.

Not only did the 2010 Spartans have a better season than all but a few teams in the country, they played the last three-and-a-half games without the ’09 Big Ten Player of the Year, and “straw that stirs” the Spartan Basketball drink.  What other team could’ve come together after the loss of their team’s engine to drive home another trip to the Final Four?    Let that be the legacy of these “Spartan Survivors,” and not any slight that over emphasizes their “distractions,” or seems to hint at any deep disappointment.

2011 should be one of the most exciting years in Spartan Basketball history.  The 2011 Spartans might go down as the most talented team in school history, and everyone seems to know it.  Losing Raymar Morgan and Isaiah Dahlman won’t be easy, but replacing them won’t be hard with the players coming in.  MSU welcomes what could go down as Tom Izzo’s best class, with at least two members expected to compete for playing time early on.

In Adreiane Payne, Izzo arguably acquires his best “True Center” to date.  In Keith Appling, the Spartans bring in perhaps the next in the line of great Guards who’ve led the Spartan attack.  It remains to be seen whether Appling will end up at the Point or Shooting Guard, but there’s no doubt he’s coming to East Lansing with All-American game.  Russell Byrd is a sharp shooting, but savvy player that could end up the star of the class if he develops his game on the arc that Tom Izzo’s program will push him along.

And last but not least, Mid-Michigan local Alex “Iggy” Gauna (I know it’s “gown-ah, but “Iggy” rocks as a potential nick name) starts his Spartan career with comparisons to another local star, Goran Suton.  Suton Red-Shirted his first year on campus, as Gauna is expected to in 2011.  But everyone seemed to think Draymond Green was set to Red-Shirt in 2009, and that change in plans has only resulted in back to back trips to the Final Four.  So you never really know what’s going to happen until after the summer burns off and practice begins.  Adding these four players, plus Anthony Ianni off a Red-Shirted 2010 for additional big man depth, will make the 2011 Spartans about as deep as a College Basketball team can get these days.

Getting healthy should mean a lot too.  It would be a pleasant surprise if Delvon Roe can finally play a healthy season in Green and White.  With as much heart and grit as Roe showed playing through a torn meniscus for months of the 2010 season, we can hardly imagine how excited and driven he’d be to play when totally healthy.  As much as a healthy Roe will be key to the run in 2011, it’s obvious that Kalin Lucas’ should be the Spartans number one key.  Forget not that the Spartans were only getting better at the moment that Lucas went down.  It’s not hyperbole to say they looked like a Final Four and National Title contending team as the first half played out against Maryland, before the tendon sadly went pop.

In 2011, the Spartan Nation can expect that playing time will be at a premium.  Some guys who might have let their games lag at times in the past year or two might quickly find themselves yanked out of the game in 2011, with no guarantee to get their spot back.  2011 should feature a type of competition for playing time that hasn’t been seen around East Lansing before.  Competition ultimately reveals the truth about College Basketball players.  That bodes quite well for the march towards Houston, a 3rd straight trip to the Final Four, and a 3rd National Championship for Spartan Basketball.

Call a Foul on the Refs!

No matter who ended up the winner Saturday night, officiating played WAY too big a role in the MSU-Butler National Semi-Final.  That’s not meant to sound like a defeated or whiny fan, but rather a simple observation for you to evaluate.  Simply put, there were too many fouls called, on both teams.  But it wasn’t just the number of fouls called, but when they were called.  Some of the game’s most critical calls were probably made on the wrong players.  Their impact only magnified the Referees’ unfortunate influence on the outcome of the Final Four.

For example, the third foul called on Raymar Morgan was probably intended for Chris Allen.  It appeared so watching the play live, appeared so after the replay, and was confirmed by Morgan after the game when he explained, “I personally didn’t think the Foul was on me.”  That call buried Morgan on the bench for the rest of the 1st half, and sadly sent him deeper into an abyss of tentative ineffective play for the rest of the game.

To carry that thought forward and appreciate how Morgan’s foul issues shaped the course of the game, let’s look at the final moments.  With less than 2:00 to go, and 10 seconds left on the shot clock, MSU forced Butler into a 3-point attempt from the corner.  As the shot hit the rim long, Morgan was positioned to go up for a critical rebound.  But he never even left his feet, knowing he was playing with 4 fouls and fearing to pick up a 5th.

Though Durrell Summers went up for it, so did two Butler Bulldogs.  After the rebound was secured, a pass was made to a cutting Gordon Heyward, who had just missed the 3. Heyward drew contact with Morgan, who again defended timidly with the 4 fouls, but made the critical basket to put Butler up 50-46.  Had Morgan gone up as usual to grab the most critical Rebound of the year, MSU could’ve been in position to tie with about 1:00 to go.

A great competitor can handle being beaten by a better opponent, but it can be tough to take defeat when you feel like a game or an opportunity has been somewhat taken away from you.  When’s the last time three starters in Green and White have tallied 4 or more fouls in a big game?  We’ve seen this type of scenario in the past though, such as the infamous Wisconsin “comeback-foul out” in the 2008 Big Ten Tournament.  MSU left Indianapolis in 2010 with some of those feelings again.

Usually, calls “even out,” but they didn’t Saturday night.  In fact, they all but buried the Spartans with another “injury,” as Morgan was rendered ineffective.  Though later in the game the call deficit narrowed from more than a half dozen down to four, the damage was already done.  After the disastrous officiating effort in the 2004 Semi-Final, in which Duke was ridiculously fouled out against UConn, I thought the Final Four would be void of such a future embarrassment.

Ask Bobby Knight, Coach K, or Izzo if the calls always “even out.”  Knight had four starters fouled out in his last trip to the Final Four in 1992, and will probably never get over it.  And after that ’04 Duke debacle, Coach K was so furious that he basically busted out of town without addressing the media, and without sticking around to attend the various Coaches Conferences.  In the week after the ’04 tourney, Izzo was asked what he thought of the officiating during the tournament, which destroyed it by fouling out about a half dozen contending teams.  He joked that so many fouls were called in that Tournament that officials had already used up a most of their allotment for 2005.  Coach K probably still doesn’t find that memory very funny.

Though not the sole factor in deciding the winner of MSU-Butler, the officiating had far too overwhelming an influence on the outcome.  Want to know why the 2nd was so choppy and sluggish?  Too many players had too many fouls, and the rhythm and tempo were thrown off.  The blame for that should fall on the NCAA.  It’s time for them to hire a good number of full-time officials to stock the Tournament’s most important matchups and bring their product up a notch.  Perhaps they should actually recruit officials under 40 who actually played in College.  There are many competent officials still in College Basketball, but they are rapidly aging and must eventually be replaced.

In a year when the integrity of the Big Dance took a huge blow, with the abysmal Tournament seeding, it did not need the Final Four and Title game to be heavily tainted by poor officiating.  The officials arguably fouled out the better team on Saturday night.  And if that wasn’t enough, Duke’s Brian Zoubek somehow wasn’t called for a foul late in the Title Game despite an obvious mauling, which would’ve been his 5th.  Had Zoubek fouled out at that point, the last minutes of the National Title Game would’ve gone very differently, and Butler very well could’ve been crowned the National Champion.  Hopefully big changes will be made, and officiating will never play as big a role in determining an NCAA Champion again.

The Spot Up 3

Three quick thoughts to carry into the College Basketball off-season:

  1. Every Spartan underclassman should return in 2011.  None of them appear ready for the NBA.  Could they be drafted?  Possibly.  Could they make a team as a Free Agent?  Potentially.  But are any of them ready to be an effective Professional Basketball Player in the Association?  Not yet, and not just with a summer’s more of work.  I would ask them simply if they wanted to only play in the NBA, or establish a career as a Professional Basketball Player.”  Hopefully they won’t make the mistakes of other Spartans in the past.  They should all return to perfect their craft and display the maturity and passion to bring their best game every night.
  2. I have a hard time believing the 4 Letter Network / CBS hype that this was the best NCAA Tournament of all time.  To me, the tournament was permanently scarred by the worst bracket construction in modern 64 team era.  It will stick in many minds as the tourney’s lasting memory, despite what the popular media tries to pound in our minds.
  3. In 2009, the nation’s two best teams played in the National Final, and the best team won.  That is the ultimate goal of the NCAA Tournament, but it didn’t happen this year.  This year, Duke seems more like the winner of a National Tournament than a National Championship.  That’s no knock on the Devils, just a reality of the way the Big Dance plays out sometimes.  Who really was the best team in the country this year?

Enjoy the Summer

We’ve covered a lot of different topics in the Spartan Nation Basketball Weekly this year.  Many of them seemed to culminate with the Spartans amazing run through March.  From the clear emergence of the Spartan Basketball’s top rival to the branding of Michigan St. Basketball on a National scale, we’ve tried to look at the issues that matter most to the Spartan Nation.  One of the best things about Spartan Nation is the intelligence of our readership.  We try not to waste your time with too many of the basics you can easily find in a daily paper.  We work to tell you why things happen and what to look for beyond the common headlines that really make a difference to Spartan Basketball.

A great thanks to the so many of you who have followed this column and read the thousands of words written from December 24th until today.  It’s been a long and incredible year for Spartan Basketball, but I can hardly wait for later this year, and the next edition of the Spartan Nation Basketball Weekly.