End to Izzo's "hardest season" carries sting

Tom Izzo felt this season would be one of his best chances at a second national title and after it all, the Spartans came close. But until Izzo gets another shot at a national title, Sunday's loss will remain difficult.

This one will sting for Tom Izzo.

One game short of his first Final Four berth since 2010 – and with a team he felt from the beginning was one of his best shots to get his second national title.

The Spartans turned over the ball, settled for 3-pointers over going to the post and came up just short somehow despite having one of their worst games of the season.

To have his team play well and to lose is one feeling, to know his team just did not have it Sunday against Connecticut brings a different pain. It was a difficult end to what amounted to a challenging season for Izzo and the Spartans.

"The hardest season since I've been here," he said.

Frustration and injuries – tiresome for all involved, media included – will be a lasting memory of this season for the Spartans. A team that earned the No. 1 spot in the nation after beating Kentucky on Nov. 12 in Chicago went in a different direction than anyone could have expected.

Down went Gary Harris, Matt Costello, Travis Trice, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson. Izzo started 15 different lineups and the frustration grew. Not as much over losses that resulted, but the difficulty of knowing the potential of his team but not being able to put it on the court.

Slowly but surely, he got piece by piece back through February and March. Payne returned. Appling returned. Dawson returned. Izzo issued warnings it would take time to get things back in order, to regain chemistry and find rhythm. It did.

He questioned if his team would run out of time to figure things out and reach its potential. It might have.

"A lot of the things you hoped, I said we'll never be back to where we were and I don't think we were," he said.

It appeared the Spartans were on their way, winning six games in a row through the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, but it takes six in the latter to win it all and that takes consistency.

It takes the exact thing the Spartans lacked this season. From the various lineups to up and down performances to Izzo confessing the Spartans lacked a true leader and a go-to scorer, it was a season filled with inconsistency.

Somehow, it pulled the first Elite Eight appearance since 2010 out of the ashes from either sheer talent or willpower or something in between.

But Elite Eights aren't why players come to Michigan State. They come to play in the Final Four. It is a recruiting pitch that has been employed and essentially a promise. It is a promise that is gone now with Appling and Payne.

Michigan State was just two points away with less than two minutes left Sunday. It just wasn't meant to be.

A few weeks ago, Izzo still saw his team having a shot at making noise in March. It did that, but not quite enough to make it to April.

"I will beat myself up for a week on why we laid an egg," he said.

But the what-ifs and what could have beens will remain much longer than that. Chances at national titles don't come around every year. Until the next time Izzo enters a season with the promise that last November brought, Sunday's loss will carry a sting.

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