By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
DETROIT, April 5 -- Michigan State center Idong Ibok had to say something. No, the redshirt senior didn't play a whole lot of minutes. He didn't chip in too many points or rebounds, either. But the Spartans had just been crushed by 35 points in a primetime matchup on a court located just an hour and a half down Interstate 96.
After the team bus rolled into East Lansing in the early hours of Dec. 4, 2008, senior guard Travis Walton called an immediate players-only meeting, one intended to clear the air following the loss to North Carolina several players described as "embarrassing." The season had just begun, but already the Spartans, a popular preseason Final Four pick, seemed on the verge of unraveling.
Four months later, Michigan State found itself preparing to play the Tar Heels again -- this time for the national championship -- and several Spartans attributed their about-face to the gathering at which even role players such as Ibok felt compelled to voice their displeasure.
"Travis is always the one talking," Ibok said. "I just felt it was important because I don't say a whole lot most of the time. I spoke up a little bit and poured my heart out, and I guess a few of the guys listened, and we were able to grow and get better since then."
For two hours, every perceived issue preventing Michigan State from reaching its potential was discussed: lackadaisical effort, poor rebounding and sloppy defense, just to name a few. Nearly every player spoke, some much more than others, but no one screamed. Senior forward Marquise Gray said none of them had played well enough that night to be in a position to shout.
Rather, the players moved forward from the depressed silence during bus ride home and the intersection at which they figuratively had reached. Point guard Kalin Lucas wasn't pushing the ball quickly enough. Forward Marquise Gray was too passive on defense. The Spartans had been "out-toughed, out-physicaled," one assistant coach said.
The talking points were many and diverse, but it was just December, the players reminded each other. There was plenty of time still for absolution.
"It was real serious," Michigan State guard Korie Lucious said. "We've had a lot of players-only meetings, but I think that one was the most important one. We basically just had to sit down and reach out to each other and realize what we had to do to be successful. I think after that meeting it kind of changed our perspective on how we going to play and the demeanor of this team."
The Spartans won 11 straight games following the loss to North Carolina, including victories over Texas, Ohio State and Kansas. They won the regular season Big Ten title by going 15-3 in conference play.
On Monday night, the Spartans can become the first team to consecutively defeat three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, not to mention claim a national title. But they must defeat North Carolina, the opponent that inspired a players-only meeting and a drastic turnaround by providing a thorough, early-season beating.
"Adversity always makes you go one way or the other; you either grow from it or you fail from it, and this team has grown from it," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "Sometimes we don't think we're perfect. I think some other people do, and we're not. But it's not really if you're perfect; it's if you learn from the mistakes you made."