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I'll be back

Izzo feels Spartans can make Final Four reappearance

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Posted: Sunday March 28, 1999 09:20 PM

  Michigan State coach Tom Izzo thinks the experience his players gained this year can only make a return trip next year more likely. AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Tom Izzo hopes Michigan State can make it back to the Final Four next season. He feels the experience gained this year might make a difference.

The Spartans, as usual, were gritty and determined, but they weren't quite good enough to take advantage of top-ranked Duke, even when the Blue Devils showed up at Tropicana Field without their best game.

Duke won their semifinal matchup 68-62 Saturday night and will play Connecticut for the NCAA championship Monday night.

"I'm not going to sit here and say we're better than Duke," Izzo said Sunday morning. "We're not. I think we proved we belonged in that game. But we didn't win it."

The victory was Duke's second this season over No. 2 Michigan State (33-5) and both were by six points. This one gave Duke a chance at its third title this decade.

Izzo feels that kind of experience was invaluable to Duke. The Blue Devils weren't awestruck by the glare of playing in the national spotlight. But the Spartans were.

"Our kids had never played a game of that magnitude before," Izzo said.

At one point during the first half, Izzo called a timeout to find out why the team wasn't running plays he had called. Some of them told him they didn't know the plays had been called.

"I said, 'What are we doing?' I knew then that guys didn't hear me," Izzo said. "That was the 'deer in the headlight,' if you want to call it that."

Still, the Spartans didn't fold. It was a trademark of theirs all season. They would frequently fall behind. But they never felt they were out of a game. As a result, they won six games by margins of five points or less.

They were 14 1/2-point underdogs against Duke, yet the Spartans were within three points with 8 1/2 minutes to play and Duke forward Elton Brand on the bench with foul trouble.

"This one will gnaw at me," Izzo said, "because you never know when you'll ever get back. Look at all the great coaches that have never been here. We'll be good next season, and maybe for a lot of seasons. But you never know if you'll be back. So many things have to fall just right."

Heading into the game, Izzo and his staff felt that to have a chance against Duke the Spartans would have to stop the 3-point threat, stop the penetration game, and rebound.

"I feel bad because of the opportunity we maybe had," Izzo said. "They did not play their 'A' game. And we had said that when they do not play their 'A' game, that was the time to beat them."

If nobody leaves early for the NBA, the Spartans will only lose three players from this squad: Antonio Smith, who was Izzo's first recruit, Thomas Kelly and Jason Klein.

Waiting in the wings are Mike Chappell, who sat out this season after transferring from Duke, and Jason Richardson, a 6-foot-5 All-Stater from Saginaw Arthur Hill.

"We've got some good guys coming in," Izzo said. "But, will they give us the commitment these guys gave us for 38 games? That remains to be seen."

The key, of course, will be whether Mateen Cleaves stays in school. Cleaves, the Spartans' charismatic leader, said immediately after the team clinched the Big Ten regular-season championship that he was staying.

But players have a way of changing their minds.

"Mateen still has not given me any indication that he's leaving," Izzo said. "But, I'm going to spend some time talking with him later this week.

"I personally think Mateen will be back next year and get better and maybe be a candidate for national player of the year."

Izzo noted that even if Cleaves goes through the NBA draft process, he can still elect to return to Michigan State -- as long as he doesn't sign with an agent.

No matter what, Izzo feels the bar has been taken up a notch for his team.

"The goal now is to get back to that bar," Izzo said. "We've got goals you can see now. It's going to be fun to see if we can achieve it."

His ultimate goal, as it has been all along, is to be compared with the great programs, with the likes of Duke and Kentucky and Indiana.

"We're not elite, because we just haven't done it long enough," Izzo said. "I'd like to do it five years or so first. Then maybe we could look around and say, 'You know what? We've got ourselves a nice little program here.'"

 
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