DETROIT (AP) — Michigan State's run to the Final Four came one season later than expected, and that's part of the reason coach Tom Izzo is enjoying it so much.
"Last year we were picked by the president and everyone else, and we didn't get out of the Elite Eight," Izzo said Monday. "It doesn't matter who picks us and who doesn't, I just appreciate the respect our program has gotten. Being where we are this year, I think we're still respected, and that's all that matters to me."
Since taking over the Michigan State program in 1995, Izzo had never gone more than three seasons without a Final Four appearance until his 2014 team fell a game short. The Spartans lost three key players from last year — first-round draft picks Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, as well as point guard Keith Appling — but the holdovers took that disappointment to heart. Now, this largely unheralded group is back on college basketball's biggest stage, the obvious underdog at a Final Four that includes unbeaten Kentucky and two other No. 1 seeds.
"We got here the hard way," Izzo said. "We earned our way here."
Although the Spartans were a No. 4 seed last season, they were a chic pick to win it all after overcoming injury problems and rolling through the Big Ten Tournament. Even President Barack Obama penciled the Spartans in for the national title, but a loss to seventh-seeded Connecticut in the regional finals ended that pursuit.
The 2014 Spartans were supposed to be one of Izzo's better teams, but even the coach they call "Tournament Tom" endures a postseason setback every now and then. After the loss to UConn, expectations were tempered for this season, and as Michigan State struggled a bit in January and early February, the Spartans looked like a probable NCAA Tournament team, but not much more.
"There came a point in the year where it was just us, just the people in our locker room and our program," guard Travis Trice said. "I'm just more happy for us as a whole. We stuck together. We could have quit. We could have rolled over and died, but we didn't. We just kept fighting."
There were a few signs all along that this team had potential.
Michigan State lost tight games to Kansas, Notre Dame and Maryland, an indication that the Spartans could play on the same level as those teams. After a loss at home to Illinois on Feb. 7, the Spartans went on the road and beat Northwestern by 24, and Izzo began to notice some encouraging signs.
"We went on the road to Northwestern. We had Ohio State, at Michigan, at Illinois. We won all four of those games," Izzo said. "We gained a little confidence. We gained a little toughness during that stretch. I thought that turned us a little bit."
The Spartans won six of their last eight games in the regular season, and then reached the Big Ten title game, where they nearly upset Wisconsin before falling in overtime.
Michigan State seemed to be headed in the right direction, and after the seventh-seeded Spartans upset second-seeded Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, they became legitimate Final Four contenders.
"Tom is as good as there is. Not just a coach, but he's a great guy," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Nothing surprises me that he and his program would do. They don't have a team, they have a program. As he develops each team, I don't know what the timeframe of it is until that group understands what the program is about, whether it be offense, defense or just character-wise, but they're going to keep improving."
Now Izzo and Krzyzewski will face each other in Saturday night's national semifinals. It's a rematch of a game Duke won 81-71 back in November, but that's part of a regular season that now seems like ancient history for the Spartans.
"Probably back around the beginning or early in February is when I said, 'This team has a chance to make a run.' Did I think it would be this deep a run? No, I can't say I did," Izzo said. "But I'm very proud. That's what makes me prouder of them. They even surprised me a little bit."