2:20 PM ET, March 30, 2014
Madison Square Garden, New York, New York
Adreian Payne was sidelined for seven with a sprained right foot."Once you get everybody back, you kind of expect it to go smoothly like it was before," guard Gary Harris said of a team that started 18-1.Instead, the Spartans lost at home to Illinois on March 1 in their first game at full strength.It made sense to coach Tom Izzo that the lack of continuity would make for a ragged offense. He reminded his players that the Oklahoma City Thunder dropped three in a row after star point guard Russell Westbrook returned from injury last month.What Izzo didn't realize at first was how much the shuffling would hinder their trademark defense, too.With Dawson and Payne's athleticism, Michigan State can switch on screens. Izzo tweaked his strategy when they were out, and it took a while to readjust after they came back.Once the Spartans' defense improved, their rebounding improved."I think we got our identity back," Izzo said.They beat Wisconsin and Michigan, two teams that have also reached the regional finals, to win the Big Ten tournament. Suddenly Michigan State was an NCAA tourney favorite despite being seeded fourth."There were people putting a fork in us, and then two weeks later the president's picking us to win the whole thing," Izzo said about Barack Obama's bracket for ESPN.The Spartans showed why by beating top-seeded Virginia on Friday in the sort of gritty, physical game Michigan State has so often won in March. Still, Izzo isn't sure this group quite has the edge yet "that just refuses to lose" of some of his past teams -- Appling is the guy who can provide that, and he's not 100 percent.Since Izzo took over in 1995, every player he's recruited who stayed four years has reached a Final Four. If the Spartans lose Sunday, Appling and Payne would be the ones who snapped that streak.To Izzo, players accept that pressure when they sign with Michigan State."I'm hoping for true competitors," he said. "Fear drives us all."Appling chose Michigan State because the program was coming off two straight Final Four trips. He pushes himself at practice every day by reminding himself of that streak.The seventh-seeded Huskies' seniors have played in a Final Four, winning a national title as freshmen. They've also experienced missing the NCAA tournament altogether.UConn was barred from last year's tourney because of previous low scores on the NCAA's academic progress measure. Ineligible for any championships, the Huskies opened last season against Michigan State in Germany in coach Kevin Ollie's first game after Jim Calhoun's retirement.UConn upset the 14th-ranked Spartans 66-62 that day. Izzo could tell "Kevin's teams are going play hard and will play disciplined."All those practices when the Huskies supposedly had nothing to play for are now rewarded by victories in the biggest games."That's what faith is all about," Ollie said. "When you can't see it, you still got to believe it. Most of the time we couldn't see it last year."But we knew we were continuing to plant seeds, and sooner or later it was going to be that right time when we were going to be ready for this moment."UConn, set to play in front of another friendly crowd at Madison Square Garden, is looking to make its fifth Final Four. DeAndre Daniels scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half to lift the Huskies past Iowa State 81-76 on Friday, taking over the scoring burden from Shabazz Napier for a day.Napier, who totaled 49 points in the first two tournament games, hit four early 3-pointers but made only one more field goal the rest of the way en route to finishing with 19 points."With our seniors on this team, I just want them to go out with a bang," Daniels said.
NCAA Mens Tournament
|Avg Points Allowed||63.1||65.3|
|» Mar 30, 2014||UCONN 60, @MSU 54||Recap|
UConn is the 2nd 7 seed ever to reach the Final Four. Virginia made the Final Four in 1984 and lost in the National Semifinals to Houston. Rick Carlisle and Olden Polynice were on that Virginia team.
This is the 1st time Tom Izzo (and Michigan State) has lost in the Elite 8 as the higher seed (previously 4-0).[+]
Elite 8 as Higher Seed - Michigan State Under Tom Izzo
Shabazz Napier has 93 points, 18 assists and 24 rebounds so far in the tournament[+]
At Least 90 Pts, 15 Ast, 20 Reb - First 4 Tournament Games, Single NCAA Tournament
Kevin Ollie is the 4th coach in the last 20 years to reach the Final Four within his first 2 seasons as a Division I head coach, joining VCU's Shaka Smart, Indiana's Mike Davis and North Carolina's Bill Guthridge. None of the other 3 coaches won the National Championship.[+]
Least Experienced Head Coaches - To Reach Final Four Last 20 Years
The seed total of UConn's opponents in its path to the Final Four is 19, and the seed total of Kentucky's opponents is 16.[+]
Lowest Opponent Seed Total - Team Entering Final Four Since 1985
ESPN Stats & Information