INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State arrived at the Final Four as the odd team out, the only one that wasn't a No. 1 seed.
Coach Tom Izzo was hoping his team would prove worthy of such elite company, but instead, the Spartans looked out of their element.
"I feel bad because I didn't think people got to see the team that (had) won 12 out of the last 15 games," Izzo said.
Michigan State's unexpected run ended quietly Saturday night when the Spartans lost 81-61 to Duke in the national semifinals. A thrilling March turned an up-and-down season into a success for Michigan State, but Spartans fans have certainly learned over the years that even Izzo can't always make up for a gap in talent.
Michigan State is now 1-9 against Duke under Izzo, and the latest matchup wasn't close. An early eight-point lead for the seventh-seeded Spartans was wiped out almost immediately, and Michigan State spent the second half trying to manage significant foul trouble while facing an opponent at the top of its game.
"Went into this game believing we could win, thinking we were going to win, just because the way we practiced," Izzo said. "I did not think we played very well. I think Duke had something to do with that, and Michigan State had something to do with that. You can't sit there, and the way we played these last 15 games — we moved that ball early, we got a lot of good shots. We just kind of settled."
Izzo's lone national championship came back in 2000, in the middle season of a three-year streak of Final Four appearances for the Spartans. Michigan State was a No. 1 seed each of those years, but lately the Spartans have made their mark more as a dangerous postseason darkhorse. They've turned the unexpected Final Four run into something of an art form, but the magic does seem to run out at a certain point.
Specifically, Izzo has had a hard time beating either Tobacco Road power. Izzo's struggles against Duke have been well documented, but his record against North Carolina is similar. The Spartans reached the Final Four as a No. 5 seed in 2005, only to lose 87-71 to the Tar Heels in the semifinals. As a No. 2 seed in the 2009 title game, Michigan State lost 89-72 to North Carolina.
In 2010, the Spartans were a No. 5 seed again, and this time the opponent was fifth-seeded Butler. The Bulldogs held off the Spartans by two in the semifinals — of course, if Michigan State had won that game, Duke would have been waiting in the final.
This year's Spartans were led by seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, so Michigan State will have to replace them. Junior Denzel Valentine led all scorers with 22 points Saturday, and he and Izzo shared a brief moment right after the game ended.
"I just looked at him — I said, 'I'm going to get you here next year,'" Valentine said. "It was a heck of a run. I'm just mad we lost because of (Dawson), Trav, what they've been through, what we've been through as a team this season. We've got to tip our hat off to Duke."
That's how these runs seem to end for Michigan State. The Spartans upset higher-seeded teams for a couple weeks — until they can't any more. Izzo felt Michigan State was capable of putting up a better fight against Duke, but there was a clear difference between the teams Saturday.
That's not to say the Spartans can't measure up with the nation's best. Last season, Michigan State was among the favorites to win the title before the NCAA Tournament started, and in 2012, the Spartans were a No. 1 seed. But this year, they were an underdog playing in a Final Four with three powerful opponents — and it showed.
"I felt like we panicked a little bit because maybe certain guys that had been shooting well didn't get shots. I thought they did a good job of taking that away," Izzo said. "We're not real deep in talent. But we'll get more. We'll be better."