BY LARRY LAGE. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Michigan State started the season unranked, looking like a rebuilding team in losses to North Carolina on an aircraft carrier and on the other side of the country against Duke in New York.
The Spartans will end it as a No. 1 seed in the West Region after Tom Izzo made all the right moves with a team that no one — including those in the program — had expected to have this type of success.
"I think one of the reasons we got a one seed is we played everybody," Izzo said Sunday in Indianapolis after a 68-64 win over Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament final.
And so they did, from the two heavyweights at the beginning of the season to Gonzaga and more. It paid off. The Spartans will begin the NCAA tournament close to home, playing Friday in Columbus, Ohio, against 16th-seeded Long Island University-Brooklyn. If they avoid an upset, the winner of the Memphis-Saint Louis awaits in the next game.
The West semifinals will be played in Phoenix, where Michigan State might be joined by No. 2 Missouri, third-seeded Marquette and No. 4 Louisville.
Draymond Green, the Big Ten player of the year and tournament most outstanding player, sounds as if a third Final Four in his career wouldn't quite cut it.
"This program has been based around hanging banners and there's no banner better than the national championship banner," Green said. "We haven't got that feeling yet, so that's what we're pushing for."
If Izzo doesn't help the Spartans win at least four times, that would be a first for him as the coach of a top-seeded team. He has had a No. 1 seed three times previously and ended up in the Final Four each of those times. Izzo also led a second-seeded team and a pair of fifth-seeded squads to the Final Four, most recently in 2010.
The Spartans earned top billing by beating Ohio State for their first Big Ten tournament title since 2000, the year they were seeded first and went on to win the national title.
"It's a confidence-builder and a momentum-builder," Green said. "Of course, it helped to get a No. 1 seed."
The Spartans were also top-seeded teams in 1999 and 2001, when they lost in the semifinals.
Michigan State's NCAA tournament streak of 15 years trails just Kansas (22) and Duke (17) among active runs.
The Spartans barely earned an NCAA tournament berth last year and had to sweat it out during the selection show, seeing most of the 68-team field announced before finally finding out they were a 10th-seeded team.
This time, they had snipped down nets in Indianapolis after beating the Buckeyes — a week after losing the regular-season finale to them at home to fall into a three-way tie for the Big Ten title — when the top seeds were revealed. Michigan State was the only No. 1 seed to win its conference tournament, a title the program hasn't won since the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
"We never play for revenge at Michigan State," Green said. "It's never about getting someone back. They took the last game. They did screw up some things for us, but it's more so looking ahead. We were playing for a No. 1 seed, which we knew was a possibility and we were playing to do something that hasn't been done here since '99, 2000."
Expectations were relatively low for the Spartans this season because Izzo had just two players who averaged double digits in minutes last season. After setbacks in showcase games against the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, Michigan State won 15 straight, including at Gonzaga, against Indiana and at Wisconsin.
"We could've lost a lot of confidence, but we fought through adversity," Green said. "So with the way we fought, I would have to say this is the best team that I've played on for the simple fact this team constantly fights through everything."
After losing three of five in January, Michigan State bounced back with a seven-game winning streak that earned a piece of the Big Ten title that it ended up sharing by closing the regular season with two straight losses.
Izzo and his players overcame the loss of freshman standout Branden Dawson, who tore the ACL in his left knee last week, at the Big Ten tournament by getting more scoring from guards Brandon Wood and Austin Thornton in wins over Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
"Losing Branden Dawson, you would think that would have killed us," Green said.
Green is easily the team's star, but he has had plenty of support on a deep team that plays in-your-face defense and relentlessly rebounds as well as any of Izzo's teams have in a decade.
"I couldn't have gotten a No. 1 seed in my career if it wasn't for these guys who I've been surrounded by," Green said.