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The Spartans, despite struggling, stayed together to the bitter end

PHOTO: Michigan State coach Tom Izzo with freshman Coen Carr.

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By TOM SHANAHAN

CHARLOTTE — – Michigan State’s season turned disappointing from the start. There is no disputing that summation – not from coach Tom Izzo or his players.

But it never turned ugly with finger-pointing. That’s another way, oddly enough, to characterize the season.

The Spartans could have easily folded — starting in November as a preseason No. 4-ranked team and just about anytime between then and the 85-69 loss to North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA West Regional Saturday at the Spectrum Center.


More of my Michigan State basketball regional coverage from Charlotte:

Wednesday: Is there a doctor in Michigan State’s Charlotte house? – Tom Shanahan Report

Thursday: Sissoko’s long season coming up big in the end – Tom Shanahan Report

Friday: Tom Izzo’s NCAA streak pre-dates Tar Heel birthdays – Tom Shanahan Report

Friday: Kevin Guskiewicz wearing green for this year’s NCAA Tournament – Tom Shanahan Report

Saturday: The Spartans, despite struggling, stayed together to the bitter end – Tom Shanahan Report

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Michigan State kept bouncing back, though, including advancing to a Big Ten record 26th-straight NCAA trip. The Spartans’ first-round NCAA win as a ninth-seeded team over a higher-seeded team, No. 8 Mississippi St., brought back bubbling to the top early-season optimism.

Finally, though, it took top-seeded North Carolina’s talent, balance and depth to drain Michigan State of its last ounces of year-long resiliency. The Tar Heels used a 15-4 run that began at the 8:52 mark in the second half to pull away with an 85-69 victory.

Izzo, deservedly so, pointed to his team’s culture over a quarter-century and its stability with long-term assistant coaches. But he’ll still wonder, “what if” about his 2023-24 team.

“Listen, I’m not making any bones about it,” he said “We underachieved and that falls on me. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it again. That’s why I thought we could make a run.”

Tyson Walker, the senior guard who led the Spartans with a game-high 24 points in his final game, said there was no magic solution. It’s as simple as they players like each other.

“I would say we didn’t even think about falling apart,” Walker said. “We knew we were better than what we were doing. I think that made us even closer, just trying to figure out why we were having those slumps.

“It’s basketball. Just because you lose some games, you can’t fall apart with people you’ve been grinding with for some years now. I think that’s what kept us together.”

North Carolina built its own chemistry this year despite needing to rely on the transfer portal and a freshman point guard to rebuild their roster in head coach Hubert Davis’ third season.

Harrison Ingram, a 6-7 forward from Stanford, finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, including 5-of-7 from three-point range. Cormac Ryan, a 6-5 guard/forward from Notre Dame, scored 14 despite a slow start with three at halftime. Elliot Cadeau finished with six points and four assists.

Their play all year allowed All-American seniors R.J. Davis and Armando Bacot to dominate. Davis, the ACC Player of the Year, scored 20 points. Bacot finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.

Davis faced a crossroads in the offseason rebuilding his team after finishing as the NCAA runner-up in 2022 and failing to make the NCAA Tournament in 2023.

“I felt good about the pieces when we got the pieces,” Davis said. “You never know until they step foot on campus. But as soon as they got on campus this team enjoyed being a team. They enjoying being together. There was never a situation when there were four guys here or four guys there. They’re always doing things together. In the meal rooms on the road, there would be two sets of tables and they’d move the tables together. They wanted all 14 to sit together.

“I don’t how that translates to wins and losses, but I think it helps. We have really good chemistry. And we’ll see how much further we can go.”

It’s taking the Tar Heels to Los Angeles for the Sweet Sixteen.

Michigan State played with chemistry and maintained it all year, but it’s a mystery of sports that for the Spartans the same elements didn’t translate to more wins.

“I kept saying to myself this team has enough,” Izzo said. “I’ll leave here today believing I’m right. I really think we had enough. We just couldn’t get over the hump. Somehow, I have to figure that out, and I promise you between now and October I will.”

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