So I started thinking…what *would* my top 5 be? This one has loads and loads of possibilities and I suspect with so many meaningful games to choose from. Here’s my attempt at one…
5. 2010 Second Round – Michigan State 85 Maryland 83
The Korie Lucious game (with an assist from a ducking Delvon Roe). Some might feel a second round game by definition doesn’t belong on a list like this one but I put it here for two reasons. First, it had probably the most dramatic end for an MSU win in the Izzo era (at least in the Tournament), with Korie hitting a game winning 3 at the horn and doing it in a scramble situation the way he did, with Day Day making the feed and Delvon having the presence of mind to just get out of the way. Second, it came in after Kalin Lucas went down with his injury. I think most MSU fans thought the dream of a second straight Final Four was dead the moment Kalin hobbled off the court against the Terps. It was hard to fathom how they could even keep it together enough to win that game with their best player out of the mix. MSU rallied to do it, and then went to a Final Four and were a missed foul call away from getting to a second straight national title game. That run really started with this game and that moment from Korie.
4. 2015 Regional Final – Michigan State 76 Louisville 70 (OT)
Not the prettiest game an Izzo team ever played in the Tournament, not by a long shot. However, I think you could argue that no Izzo team ever squeezed more passion or came closer to reaching their potential in a big moment than we saw happen in this game. MSU overcame so much to pull it out. MSU was down 8 at the half and Louisville had won 94 straight games when leading by 6 or more at the break. They had to withstand a late Ville FT attempt which could have won the game for the Cardinals. They allowed UL to shoot 53% in the first half, and then limited them to 20% shooting in the second half with stifling defense, led by senior forward BJ Dawson.
I put this one on the list in front of several other games which easily belonged, because I think it was the game that perhaps embodies what’s made this program great over the last two decades as much as any other…that an MSU team which was left for dead by many in December and even January willed itself via toughness, heart, veteran leaders and not a little bit of talent to do what no one (not even an eternal optimist like me) believed possible.
3. 2005 Regional Final – Michigan State 94 Kentucky 88 (2 OT)
This one probably would belong even if it hadn’t been such a thriller, because it marked a return to the Final Four for the program after a 3 year absence. Remember, there were people around who believed Izzo was a fluke (most of them among the 14 haggard souls haunting Crisler Arena…but I digress) and that his success was the product of a couple of classes. The win also spelled redemption for a senior class which had been IMO unfairly maligned as being “chokers” and worse.
However the game itself was a true classic. Both teams traded big shot after big shot…Mo Ager, Shannon Brown, Patrick Sparks, Kelenna Azubuieke…Rajon Rondo ran the show for UK that day. In the end, MSU had just a little bit more in the tank and got back to the promised land. I think if there was one single game that did more than any other to cement Izzo’s legacy, you could do worse than ID this one. Not a fluke…not by a long shot.
2. 2009 National Semifinal – Michigan State 82 Connecticut 73
For so many of us, I think this one retains special memories. The opportunity for your school, your team to play in a Final Four at home is so, so rare. MSU got to live that out and put together a tremendous game to beat a UConn team which was seen by many as the favorite. The dunk by Durrell Summers over Stanley Robinson probably stands out the most in terms of an individual moment, and it should, but for me it was the overall atmosphere that lingers most as a memory. To have that many people in green in one building, watching MSU win a game with such huge importance…magical stuff. Yeah, the title game loss was an unfortunate coda but honestly, when I think about that season, THIS is the game which springs to mind. It outlives the sting coming out of the UNC loss by miles.
1. 2000 National Title game – Michigan State 89 Florida 76
Had to be #1. Until MSU wins its next title, it has to sit here. When you look back at something like this, sometimes it’s easy to forget what it felt like to go through that process step by step. The injury to Cleaves early in the season and the struggles that team went through as they tried to adjust to life without their point guard and leader. The all out war in the Big Ten, a loaded conference that produced a second Final Four team in Wisconsin and another in the Elite Eight in Purdue (and neither of those were the second best team in the league…that was Ohio State). MSU fighting past both Syracuse and Iowa State in the regional at the Palace (two games which were absolute contenders for a spot on this list as well). It wasn’t preordained, not by a long shot, but in the end the best team won the whole deal. I believe that. Michigan State had more talent and more experienced talent than anybody else when healthy and whole, and they were both coming into this game.
Then Cleaves goes down after the Dupay trip and you began to wonder if it would all crumble away…and then he returns to the floor like a prize fighter (or like Earvin Johnson did against Ohio State in a critical game at Jenison 21 years prior). He was on one leg, essentially, but there was no way Izzo wasn’t going with his leader if he could even halfway walk, and that’s just about what he managed. Truthfully, this was the least competitive of any of the five games I have here, but it also has to mean the most.