But another trip to the Hoosier State capital for an NCAA Final Four didn’t follow the previous script of the Spartans winning or, at the very least, being a tough out.
After enjoying an early eight-point lead built on four 3-pointers, Michigan State struggled to score and defend. Duke won the first semifinal going away, 81-61, Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
As junior guard Denzel Valentine exited, he hugged Izzo and told his coach, “I’m going to get you here next year, coach.”
Three of Izzo’s seven career Final Four trips have been to Indianapolis. The Spartans won it all in 2000 at the old RCA Dome. Five years ago at Lucas Oil Stadium, Michigan State battled the hometown Cinderella Butler Bulldogs down to the final minute in a regional semifinal. A no-call on a last inside shot resulted in a bitter 52-50 loss.
Afterward, Izzo didn’t bemoan the no-call. He was effusive in his praise and admiration of coach Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs. The Spartans coach admitted even he was a fan of Butler.
A more one-sided loss this time didn’t lessen Izzo’s admiration for his latest Spartans squad. They weren’t supposed to make it this far. That’s what so many said of a resilient bunch that ended up 27-12.
He said this team reaching the Final Four might be one of the “greatest feats” in program history.
And then he reminded these Final Four trips aren’t about him.
“The thing is, I’ve been to seven of ‘em,” Izzo said. “I’d like to promise to get (Valentine) back. It’s more important that they get back than I get back.”
Valentine buried three 3-pointers and Travis Trice added another to give Michigan State an early 14-6 lead. That would be the high point of the night, unfortunately, for the Spartans.
Duke’s defensive pressure forced bad shots and turnovers. Too many turnovers. The Spartans had 14, their highest total in 16 games. And they finished just 22-of-55 shooting (40 percent).
“They did a good job of taking me away,” said Valentine, who finished with a game-high 22 points but struggled to get open looks after his fast start. “I got hot. They started denying a little bit, started forcing us to take bad shots. Next thing you know, they had a lead.”
The top-seeded Blue Devils (34-4) were ahead 36-25 by halftime. They shot better and didn’t turn the ball over as much. That continued in the second half.
The Duke triumvirate of forward Justise Winslow (19 points), center Jahlil Okafor (18 points) and guard Quinn Cook (17 points) proved too much. The Blue Devils shot 52 percent (26-of-50) with just eight turnovers.
Aside from Valentine, senior guard Travis Trice scored 16, then senior forward Braden Dawson had 12. There just wasn’t enough balanced scoring punch.
Trice said the turnovers were a result of “trying to force the issue. A lot of our turnovers were really unforced.”
That’s what made this Michigan State appearance so frustrating. These weren’t the Spartans who almost knocked off fellow Final Four finalist Wisconsin in the Big Ten Conference Tournament title game before losing in overtime.
This wasn’t the same team that had overcome so much to achieve what many didn’t think possible.
In the locker room, Izzo told his players how proud he was of them.
“This team, you know, they took a lot (of criticism) this year, from our own fans at times, from people,” he said. “I understand why. But this team played pretty well all year.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.