Michigan State's seniors try to keep Final Four tradition alive

Stephen Dunn

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has been to the Final Four six times since he started coaching, and much of this stems from the senior leadership he keeps around.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

As Tom Izzo prepares to lead his Michigan State Spartans into the Sweet 16 for the 12th time during his career, there's one stat you're bound to hear in the coming days: Every senior class under Izzo has reached the Final Four. It's a ridiculous statistic, and one that will be put to the test when the Spartans play Virginia on Friday.

The Spartans have two seniors who play a significant role this year in center Adreian Payne and point guard Keith Appling. Neither has ever reached the Final Four in East Lansing. Payne and Appling will not want to be the senior class that breaks this incredible streak.

Izzo has led Michigan State to six Final Four appearances during his tenure, and this year's Spartans squad is representative of the mix he's always used to get it done. The team has a combination of youthfulness and experience on the roster that tends to win in March.

Here's a look at Michigan State's Final Four appearances under Tom Izzo, and the seniors that helped make them happen.

1999

Lost in Final Four; Morris Peterson (junior), Mateen Cleaves (junior), Jason Klein (senior), Andre Hutson (sophomore), Charlie Bell (sophomore), A.J. Granger (junior)

This was the first of three consecutive Final Four appearances, and also the one with the least amount of seniors on the squad. Klein was the third-leading scorer on the team, but overall, this squad was on the more veteran side, and it also set the stage for the following year.

2000

Won National Championship; A.J. Granger (senior), Mateen Cleaves (senior), Charlie Bell (junior), Morris Peterson (senior), Andre Hutson (junior), Jason Richardson (freshman)

Anytime a Final Four squad loses only one starter and returns the rest, many of whom are rising seniors, it starts the year as a national title favorite. This Spartans team rolled through the NCAA Tournament in a dominant fashion, winning by an average of 13.6 points per game. The defense was top notch, allowing just 58.9 points per game. The senior factor showed in shot selection, as well. The Spartans were one of the better shooting teams in the nation, hitting 47.4 percent of their shots.

2001

Lost in Final Four; Andre Huston (senior), Charlie Bell (senior), Jason Richardson (sophomore), David Thomas (senior), Zach Randolph (freshman), Marcus Taylor (freshman)

Just enough people hung on from the 2000 title team to make another deep run, but this was the start of Izzo's combination lineups. The team featured seniors Huston and Bell, but also included a frontcourt with future stars Richardson and Randolph.

2005

Lost in Final Four; Paul Davis (junior), Shannon Brown (sophomore), Maurice Ager (junior), Alan Anderson (senior), Kevin Torbert (senior), Chris Hill (senior), Drew Neitzel (freshman)

This was one of the more experienced teams of Tom Izzo's Final Four appearances. Most of the key contributors were upperclassmen, except for Brown. But his spark was rather important through the tournament run. Brown scored 24 points in an Elite Eight upset over Kentucky, but didn't make a huge impact in the other games in the tournament. That is where Ager and Davis came into anchor the team.

2009

Lost in NCAA Championship; Kalin Lucas (sophomore), Goran Suton (senior), Travis Walton (senior); Raymar Morgan (junior), Delvon Roe (freshman), Durrell Summers (sophomore), Chris Allen (sophomore), Korie Lucious (sophomore), Draymond Green (freshman)

Suton was the lone senior with meaningful minutes on this squad that played three-straight No. 1 seeds en route to finally falling short in the national title game. He had some great games in the tournament, but also a couple of forgettable ones. He was non-existent (for Suton standards) in the Spartans' Final Four win over Connecticut. Like all well-balanced Izzo teams, he saw production from Lucas and Morgan to launch Michigan State into the title game.

2010

Lost in Final Four; Durrell Summers (junior), Korie Lucious (sophomore), Delvon Roe (sophomore), Raymar Morgan (senior), Draymond Green (sophomore), Chris Allen (junior), Austin Thornton (sophomore)

The 2010 Spartans were seen as title favorites at the beginning of the year, but they ran into the magical run of the Butler Bulldogs. They were also one of his more upperclassmen-heavy squads that went that deep in the tournament. Green was the only young spark plug, and although he gathered a ton of rebounds in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, foul trouble limited his effectiveness. All considering, it wasn't Izzo's strongest team anyway, ranked No. 21 by Ken Pomeroy, compared to No. 6 the season before.

* * *

2014

TBD; Gary Harris (sophomore), Adreian Payne (senior), Keith Appling (senior), Denzel Valentine (sophomore), Branden Dawson (junior), Travis Trice (junior)

This year's version of Tom Izzo's squad might be the most equally balanced when it comes to under and upperclassmen. Harris is the undisputed scorer in the backcourt, but he is balanced by Appling's leadership and command of the offense. Payne is a force down low and has the energy of Valentine on the wing. The younger players start to get the hang of it and mesh by the time March Madness rolls around, and the older players are there to carry the team if it needs it.

Making it into the Final Four, let alone winning the championship, takes a certain degree of luck. Looking at Izzo's success with his rosters, each one has had an important senior player or two on the team, while also relying on the fresh blood to push into the upper reaches of the NCAA Tournament. This season, it looks like that stage is set again.

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