WASHINGTON — When Magic Johnson showed up for Michigan State’s practice Saturday, Tom Izzo simply stood to the side and let the best player in the program’s history do a little coaching.
Magic wanted Michigan State to get out in transition against Duke and, as fate would have it, the Spartans finished Sunday’s epic win with a 15-0 edge in fast-break points.
Magic told his guys to box out early against Duke, and sure enough, the Spartans corralled a half dozen early offensive boards that helped build the foundation for Sunday’s win.
Then he told this season’s Michigan State team how much it reminded him of his own title run 40 years ago. Living up to that would be a far bigger challenge for the Spartans.
And yet, here they are. Cassius Winston and his 20 points, 10 assists and 1 turnover, a performance that will be etched into Michigan State lore right alongside Johnson’s heroics from 1979. Xavier Tillman’s grueling battle against Zion Williamson that frustrated the Duke star as much as any matchup this season. Kenny Goins’ dramatic 3-pointer with 34 seconds left to give Michigan State a lead, a shot he had missed and missed and missed so often that his coach asked if he’d ever make one.
“I’ll make the next one,” he told Izzo.
It had been four years since the Spartans made it this far, to a Final Four with a chance to win it all. For most programs, that’s a blip. For Michigan State, an eternity. This is a place where legacy matters, where the legends of the past — Johnson and Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell, all in attendance Sunday — loom large.
And now, Winston and Tillman and Goins have their own chapter in Spartans lore.
The Spartans’ 68-67 win sent Duke home, in all likelihood ending the college careers of superstars Williamson and RJ Barrett. Hours earlier, Auburn toppled another blue blood, sending Kentucky to its own tournament exit. Gonzaga and North Carolina and Michigan? Gone, gone and gone this weekend.
The last of the legacy brands still standing is Michigan State.
Before the game, Michigan State watched a video its production staff had compiled. Players from past Final Four teams all chimed in, offering messages of support, encouragement and advice.
“I guess the only good thing about Twitter,” Izzo said, “is they were all able to send things in via social media.”
Now, Izzo joked, Magic Johnson and the others would have to come up with a game plan for a national championship, too.
Thing is though, there’s no game plan for the confidence Winston brings to this Michigan State team that, after 20 shots, his teammates just wanted him to shoot more. And there’s no advice to give Matt McQuaid when he decides he wasn’t quite physical enough attacking the basket on one shot, so on the next he delivers a jaw-dropping dunk. “I don’t know what got into me,” he said afterward. And there’s precious little precedent for the way Michigan State picked apart everything Duke did well all season, forcing Williamson away from the go-to parts of his massive repertoire, to beat the Blue Devils at their own game. No one had done that so thoroughly this season.
All of that, that’s a new legacy. That’s how this crop of Spartans joins Magic and Mateen and the others who set the stage, and if they finish the job in Minneapolis next week, it’s why they’ll be mentioned in the same hushed tones.
“We hope to leave our mark,” Winston said. “And one day we’re going to come back and tell the young guys, this is what it takes to get to this point. It’s a big deal seeing those guys and seeing what the program means to them and have that same feeling that, years and years from now, we’ll come back and maybe do that same thing.”
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