(Note to self: Pencil Michigan State into Final Four bracket next season and forever more as long as Tom Izzo is its coach.)
ST. LOUIS -- It was easy to forget how good this season's edition of Tom Izzo's Michigan State basketball team, one year removed from being national runner-up, was supposed to be as the regular campaign played out. It lost two games early, to Florida and some team called North Carolina. It tripped at Texas just as the Longhorns were about to pretend to be the No. 1 team in the nation. And when February rolled around and the Spartans started playing more before the nation's eyes on ESPN, rather than Midwest eyes on the Big Ten Network, they started losing again.
So who remembered that these Spartans were ranked No. 2 in the country before the season's first jump ball? Who recalled they were picked to win the Big Ten, which at the start of this season was thought to be the nation's best? Who kept in mind that their point guard Kalin Lucas was expected to successfully defend his status as Big Ten player of the year?
Those of us who forgot the Spartans did so at our own peril, or more specifically, our brackets.
The Spartans aren't just headed back to the Final Four after holding off equally gritty but not quite as talented Tennessee on Sunday in the Midwest Regional championship, 70-69. They're returning, for the sixth time in the last dozen years, with the look (at least from my Edward Jones Dome courtside seat over last weekend) of being the favorite to win it all.
The Spartans are scheduled to meet another hot team in the national semifinals next Saturday in Indianapolis, Butler, which will also have the town on its side because it calls Indy home. Butler was ranked 10th at the start of the season and never fell out of the Top 25.
But none of that matters. Butler hasn't climbed to this height of college basketball; Michigan State maintains a base camp just below the summit.
Duke, which stiff-armed Baylor on Sunday to get a ticket to Indianapolis, hasn't gotten so far in more than half a decade. It is scheduled to play West Virginia, which propelled itself past Kentucky with unexpected 3-point accuracy.
I'll take Michigan State against the field.
A lot was made this tournament of the Spartans' loss of Lucas to a torn Achilles' tendon against Maryland during the second round. He led the team in scoring and in assists.
But none of that really matters with an Izzo team. Lucas' teammates cried for him. Then each guy added a little something to their normal contribution to pick up the slack of Lucas' 14 points and four assists per game. Shooting guard Durrell Summers led all scorers with 21 on Sunday, missing just two of 10 attempts, to further stake his new claim as the Spartans' scoring leader. He led them with 19 against Northern Iowa on Friday and 26 against Maryland.
Lucas' little back up, Korie Lucious, stepped up Sunday, playing 35 minutes against Tennessee's two-headed point of Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins, and led the team in assists just as he did on Friday with 6-foot-6 roly-poly forward Draymond Green against Northern Iowa.
Lucas, on the bench in sweats and needing aluminum crutches to hop around, helped Izzo coach.
"Lucas is a big part of this," Izzo said. "He was there on the bench telling me what plays to call."
The reason Lucas's loss hasn't derailed these Spartans has nothing to do with his play being overrated. It has everything to do with Izzo's concept of team being underrated.
After all, the Spartans go through what they are going through now all of the time.
"We've been through a lot this year," Lucious said, "injuries and suspensions."
Izzo suspended shooting guard Chris Allen, who had started most of the season, just as the Big Ten tournament was about to start. Without him, though not necessarily because of his unavailability, the Spartans lost their opener.
During the regular season, Lucious was forced to miss a game due to a classroom issue, Summers got benched for not playing as hard as Izzo demanded, and Lucas, no matter his importance, got kicked out of a practice and lost a start.
A season ago, Lucious broke his foot during the Final Four. Morgan played through the end of the national tournament sporting a mask to protect a broken nose after playing much of the season less than full strength due to a bout with walking pneumonia and mono.
It almost wouldn't be an Izzo team if it wasn't fraught with some hiccups big and small. But all the little ones are gone now and they are playing as if the biggest one, the Lucas' injury, isn't so big after all. Lucas made the Spartans better; his loss doesn't make them bad.
"I'm just going to say I'm proud to represent Michigan State, and I'm proud to represent the Big Ten, that conference that sometimes gets maligned but always seems to have teams in the Final Four," Izzo said after dropping his clipboard to the floor in joyous exhaustion when Tennessee's J.P. Prince's potential buzzer-beating half-court chuck missed the mark.
"I'm proud of these guys. Delvon [Roe] and Chris and Korie, I thought they did a great job doggin' them [Volunteers] all day. And Durrell came through, but it was Ray [Raymar Morgan] and Day-Day [Draymond Green]...they're our rocks.
"I didn't think they played well the first half," Izzo said in his typical post-game raspy voice. "The second half, they sucked it up, played a lot of minutes.
"There's nothing greater than going to a Final Four that I know of, except maybe winning it."
And at the beginning of the season, Izzo's Spartans were one of two teams we thought had the best chance to do so this year.