Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Last night after the Spartans took down Maryland 64-61 in what was one of the best college basketball games of the year, an exhausted Mark Turgeon the head coach of Maryland took the podium. He is an excellent coach, but clearly that game came with all the emotion one expects from college basketball games when the calendar flips to March.
The Spartans had beaten his Terrapins for the second time this season and just improved their record to 28-5 and punched their ticket to today’s Big Ten Tournament championship game. To be honest it isn’t the best time to ask a coach the question I did, but with less than 24 hours until the Spartans next game I had to.
How good are these Spartans? In an emotional moment Turgeon’s class and deep introspective answer was impressive. “Watching them on film and watching the way they played since we played at their place, I think they’ve lost one game in overtime since. You could tell they were getting it together and playing well. And they built incredible depth in a guy like Davis who has gotten so much better. He’s a rim protector for them.”
After a slight pause he continued, “To me, I thought it was kind of a joke them not being mentioned as a number one seed. You take Valentine’s injury, he’s out. They kind of lose their rhythm a little bit. Lose a couple games in that stretch. If he never gets hurt, they probably don’t lose them. You’re talking probably number one in the country, only had one or two losses.”
He thought for a moment and added this one sentence coming from a very good coach that should tell Spartan Nation how good MSU really is, “Heck of a team. Obviously, they’re well-coached. And where they’ve really improved I think is defensively. They’ve gotten better.”
It was in this exact same setting that I had asked Ohio State head coach Thad Matta nearly the same question. Does this Spartan team have the ability to win the national title? If you need a Sunday morning emotional pick up here it is.
“I think they do. Being in this league, Big Ten, for 12 years now, I have had the pleasure of coaching some of the best teams that have come through here in 12 years. And I think that team right there is one of the best that I have seen. Obviously, Denzel Valentine, I don’t read what is said and I don’t watch a lot of television, but I don’t know where he ranks in terms of his status in college basketball, but I don’t think there’s anybody better than him. He just makes that team go and does so many things. A couple of passes he threw tonight, like, what are you going to do? Hats off to him. He’s going to be a great, great pro.”
Tom Izzo has never left his UP roots. You can take the man out of the Upper Peninsula, but you can’t take the UP out of him. Respect means more than anything. So he was humbled when I asked for his response to the respect given by his Bit Ten counterparts.
“I have a good relationship with a lot of coaches. Maybe they’re just trying to help me out. I don’t know. But I appreciate that.” Those words do not show the emotion Izzo showed to the praise from his peers.
In my business we joke about getting the money quote. The quote that will drive the general public to read what someone says. I take umbrage with that sometimes. A money quote doesn’t have to be controversial and I have endeavored in my career to not seek (or run) from controversy, but to listen. What Matta and Turgeon said are great quotes, but the money quote came from Denzel Valentine.
I asked him with his long Spartan lineage just how do you describe this team. His answer would be like seeking an AMEN from an evangelical choir for the Spartan Nation. It should inspire fans and strike fear in the teams who fall on roadmap for the Spartans quest for a program’s third national title.
“I think we’re so hungry, and that is the thing. Our goal, when we got here, was to win a National Championship. And we haven’t accomplished that yet. We have the perfect team, I think, to do it this year. So us, as seniors and the senior class, we are really hungry to do that and accomplish that goal. So ever since the season got over last year, going to the Final Four and being that close, it only just drove us that much more to get back. Not only that, try to win this championship. And then see what happens after that. So we have been hungry, and that has been driving us.”
Valentine and the team expressed the mantra of; “Win nine” this post season. That goal if reached will bring home a Big Ten Tournament title and a National Title. Two down. Seven to go and from inside and outside the Spartan Nation, there is growing acceptance that this team is on the road to do it. I agree.
MSU and Purdue tip off today at 3PM ET on CBS.