After watching Florida use its depth to dismantle the Duke and North Carolina men's basketball squads en route to the NCAA championship game, I thought they stood a chance against Michigan State.
While watching Monday night's 89-76 Spartan victory over the Gators, I expected Florida's press-and-run style of play to make the game competitive. Through the first half, I was impressed with how well Michigan State handled the press. But I was even more impressed with how the Spartans played in the beginning of the second half.
Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves rolled his ankle with 16:18 to play in the game after getting tangled up with Florida's Teddy Dupay. Cleaves missed 13 early-season games with a stress fracture in the same foot. Watching the point guard writhing in pain on the court made me wonder whether this was going to affect the outcome of the game.
Especially this season, with all the injuries that have sidelined team superstars, seeing a team fall apart without its star player has become common, and I thought there was a possibility of the same situation happening with the Spartans.
When Cincinnati lost Kenyon Martin in the Conference USA championship game, the team lost its chance at contending for the national title. Arizona, though it advanced further in the Tournament than the Bearcats did, fell to Wisconsin largely because of the absence of 7-foot-1 Loren Woods, who was sidelined with a back injury.
Cleaves was able to return for Michigan State, but his presence was not what won the game for the Spartans.
"I told [the players] he'll be back," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in the postgame press conference. "Let's not get our heads down."
And the team took those words to heart.
When Cleaves left the game, the Gators had cut an 11-point Spartan halftime lead to 50-44. When he returned four and a half minutes later, the score was 58-50.
On the possession following Cleaves' injury, Michigan State's Mike Chappell, a transfer from Duke, buried a trey from the top of the key to help the Spartans forget about Cleaves' situation in the locker room and focus on the game.
"Once Mateen went down, we rallied together and turned up the momentum," Chappell said in the postgame press conference. "It was slipping away from us."
Having their floor general back in the game was important to the Spartans even though he went scoreless after the injury. However, the momentum that his team found while he was in the locker room was even more important.
Many teams find themselves hurting if something happens to one of their stars, whether that comes in the form of scoring woes or injuries. But a great team like Michigan State responds to adversity even without all of its top players.
Cleaves was the Final Four MVP, but his teammates response when he went down proves even more about the quality of the Spartan squad. In a year when so many teams had legitimate shots at the NCAA championship, Michigan State proved without a doubt that the best team won the title.