Healthy, tough and together, Michigan State playing its best basketball at the right time

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State is on the verge of a Final Four berth -- something that was tough to imagine not too long ago.

In an event with few guarantees, Tom Izzo's Michigan State teams have been an NCAA Tournament constant. They're almost always either in the Final Four or a threat to make it there. The "every senior under Izzo has made the Final Four" storyline has been talked and written about enough. We all know it. What's easy to forget, however, is how far the Spartans have had to come this year to make it back to the brink of the season's premiere event.

After starting 18-1, the Spartans floundered in the middle portion of the Big Ten schedule. They lost seven out of 12, including home losses to both Nebraska and Illinois. They dealt with a bevy of injuries, losing Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Keith Appling at one point or another during that stretch.

Perhaps the low point came on March 1, when Michigan State lost 53-46 at home to NIT-bound Illinois. It was the day that the Spartans were finally back at full strength. It was supposed to be the start of their comeback.

Instead, Michigan State trailed almost the entire second half and turned the ball over 16 times. Harris had 19 points in that game, but no other player was able to tally more than seven.

"When you lose three guys, it's hard," Izzo said. "But when you get them back, now you have to redo everything. That's what made it hard on these guys."

And Michigan State didn't just feel the pressure on the court. Fans and students in East Lansing wanted answers. They wanted to know why the team that started the season ranked No. 2 in the country was struggling to beat middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams at home.

"We went to go get something to eat, went to the stores a lot of people were just asking us, ‘what's going on with the team?'" Dawson said. "Some people said it was my fault and I kind of laughed it off. But it was definitely frustrating not having our chemistry and not having our rhythm back."

While Dawson was trying to figure things out for himself, Denzel Valentine was dealing with on-court issues of his own. The guard was forced into a bigger role, though inconsistency plagued him for much of the year. He'd post double figures two or three games in a row, then disappear the next night.

"It was frustrating on the court just figuring out our role, especially for me," he said. "I wasn't always the spotlight player or whatever, and when guys got hurt, I had to step up and I had more pressure on me."

The results of finally getting healthy were made clear at the start of the Big Ten Tournament. The Spartans beat upset-minded Northwestern in the quarterfinals, then topped Wisconsin -- now in the Final Four -- and in-state rival Michigan to claim the conference championship.

Izzo identified the conference title game as the moment he saw the team regain its identity. After earning the Big Ten auto-bid, Michigan State drew the 4 seed in the East and blew by Delaware, 93-78 in the Second Round. The Spartans then beat upstart Harvard, 80-73, and on Friday held off No. 1 seed Virginia, 61-59.

Now, the only team standing in the Spartans' way of another trip to the Final Four is 7 seed Connecticut. The Huskies knocked off Iowa State on Friday and will likely have a decisive home-court advantage at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon.

Not that the prospect of a virtual road game worries Izzo.

"That's the advantage of having some experience and I think some toughness," he said. "I think you got to do that when you go on the road."

So finally, with the Spartans a win away from the Final Four in Dallas, they seem to have put it all together. They're healthy. They're playing well. They have the intangibles.

Michigan State will be favored, though the Spartans expect a tough game from UConn. Not that it should be a problem. Nothing has come easy for them this year anyway.

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