Michigan State helped launch the modern era of college basketball with one of the sport’s most iconic showdowns, 40 years ago this year: the 1979 NCAA championship game, “Magic vs. Bird.”
Magic Johnson and the Spartans beat Larry Bird’s previously undefeated Indiana State squad 75-64 with the nation glued to the NBC broadcast.
That remained the pinnacle for coach Jud Heathcote, who continued coaching Michigan State for another 16 seasons. He was one of the Big Ten’s most cantankerous and lovable characters but never again made it past the Sweet 16.
In 1995-96, Michigan State turned to Tom Izzo, who had been an assistant under Heathcote for a dozen seasons. After two trips to the NIT, the fiery Izzo had the Spartans back in the Sweet 16.
Then things went next level. Michigan State reeled off three straight trips to the Final Four, including the 1999-2000 NCAA title run, led by Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, A.J. Granger and Charlie Bell. The Spartans were the defending champs heading into the 2001 Final Four at the Metrodome but lost in the semifinals to Lute Olson’s Arizona team.
Michigan State returned to the Final Four in 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2015, cementing its status as one of college basketball’s blue bloods.
This is the 22nd consecutive season Izzo has led the Spartans into the NCAA tournament. But when you raise the bar as high as he did early in his head coaching career, any letdown becomes harder to swallow.
Middle Tennessee State, a No. 15 seed, handed the No. 2-seeded Spartans an early exit from the 2016 tournament. Michigan State didn’t make it out of the second round the next two years, either.
“I look at it now like, who knows if you’ll ever get back [to the Final Four]?” Izzo said. “I thought that early on, and then we went to three in a row, and I probably got a little spoiled myself.
“Right now, I’m going to enjoy every bit of it. But I’m going to try to find a way to do things a little differently because we have been to seven other [Final Fours] and only one won. That means that maybe we’re not doing everything right when we get there.”