For a day, St. Louis was almost Sparta.
But it was the smart plays, not the savagery that preceded them, that helped Michigan State beat Tennessee and advance to Tom Izzo's sixth Final Four.
With the score tied at 69, Draymond Green found Raymar Morgan underneath the basket with seconds remaining, and the Spartans' standout senior got fouled, made the first free throw, and missed the second purposefully to run precious tenths off the clock. That forced Tennessee to inbound from under its own hoop and make a Hail Mary; J.P. Prince short-armed that shot, and the Spartans survived.
Of course, those smarts just made up for almost a minute of sustained stupidity from both sides. Michigan State took a contested three with time left on the shot clock and a one-point lead; after the Spartans corralled the rebound, Tennessee took seven seconds to foul Korey Lucious; after Lucious missed the front end of a one-and-one, Tennessee's Scotty Hopson took a jumper with 11 seconds left, and Green fouled him.
That sequence was brutal, and stood in stark contrast to a sublime first half. The teams combined for 80 points in the first 20 minutes, racing out to a 16-16 tie by the first TV timeout just 4:53 into the game. Tennessee, the 269th-best team in the country from deep, made six of nine first-half threes; the Spartans scored on their first eight possessions.
It was an exhilarating game of college basketball, and gave viewers all styles in one package, transitioning from a shootout to a grind-it-out defensive struggle -- the last 15:11 featured just 38 points -- to a close one in crunch time. That last shift gave the Spartans the edge.
Time and again, Izzo's teams seem to prevail in these sorts of games. By not outsmarting themselves, making more sound plays than their opponents, and maintaining discipline in every situation, the Spartans don't just seem to survive and advance more than any other team in college hoops: They actually do just that. Izzo's 34 NCAA Tournament wins are second only to Mike Krzyzewski among active coaches, and he's 6-1 in Elite Eight games.
Bruce Pearl is a fantastic coach, and proved it by taking an underhyped team -- one that lost its best player and had three others suspended in a midseason run-in with the law -- to the Elite Eight. But his freewheeling Vols losing to Izzo's steady Spartans seems like a confirmation that when talent is more or less equal, counting on the tried and true is a wise proposition.
Michigan State doesn't have a basketball team that lives up to the Spartans of antiquity. But I don't think fans mind: These Spartans seem to win more often.â†µ
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.