Mr. March has done it again. Tom Izzo, the Hall of Fame coach for Michigan State, led the No. 7 seed Spartans to another Sweet 16 appearance in wiping out No. 2 seed Marquette 69-60 in the second round on Sunday to clinch his 15th career appearance in the NCAA Tournament's second weekend. The Spartans were 3.5-point underdogs but led for the majority of the game in a coaching clinic on both ends of the floor.
Izzo and Michigan State have become synonymous with success in college basketball as one of the best coach-program pairings in the history of the sport, but of late it has not come easy in East Lansing, Michigan. Sparty finished at least 3.5 games out of first-place in the Big Ten each of the last three seasons and failed to reach the second weekend of the Big Dance in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments. The win gave them their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2019, when it advanced to the Final Four as a No. 2 seed.
Marquette entered the game with a top-10 offense across efficiency ratings but was unable to fend off Michigan State's aggressive and efficient attack in the interior. The Spartans doubled up the Golden Eagles in points in the paint 32-16 and sank 19 of their 23 free throws to help overcome a 2-for-16 shooting showing from 3-point range.
"It's been a long year," Izzo said on CBS as he fought back tears. "Really proud of those guys. They hung in there. We just finally made some plays, you know. Our defense got a little better again. I'm just so happy for my guys."
Marquette drained 11 of its 27 3-point attempts but star guard Tyler Kolek, the Big East Player of the Year who has been nursing a thumb injury, could not drag the team out of its late deficit. Kolek finished with seven points on 2-of-8 shooting, with six of those points coming on two made 3-point baskets in the second half.
"I think we beat a damn good team," Izzo said :They were tough. I am so proud of these guys for withstanding that. I've been in Elite Eight games, I've been in the Final Four, and that was as intense and as tough a game as I've been in in my career."
Spartans senior guard Tyson Walker was the ignition switch that lit the fuse to the team's late run to the finish as he led the way with 23 points, 17 of them coming in the second half. The 6-foot-1 guard nailed 7-of-8 free-throw attempts in the second half and had a hop in his step unlike at any other point – dunking for the first time in a game in his career.
"I ain't never dunked [in a game]," Walker said.
"Never dunked?" said a stunned Izzo.
"Nah, but I went for it," Walker quipped.
Here are three takeaways from Michigan State's victory.
1. Walker sets up homecoming
Inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, Walker set himself up for a homecoming in the Sweet 16 in leading the Spartans with 23 points in the win. Walker's big day helped propel MSU into the East Regional Semifinals, where it will face No. 3 seed Kansas State inside Madison Square Garden -- a full-circle moment for the New York native.
"It means everything," Walker said. "Growing up, seeing everything, playing at The Garden means a lot. Just to make those shots and look over at my dad and see how excited he was, it means everything. ... I just owe coach some pizza now. And a cab ride."
2. Sparty defense stands strong
Marquette -- one of the best all season in turnover percentage and taking care of the ball -- committed 16 turnovers in the loss, a credit to Michigan State and its stiff defense. Michigan State could not force the Golden Eagles off their game -- they still made 11 3-pointers and shot nearly 40% from the field -- but they wreaked just enough havoc to create more opportunities which then translated to more baskets . . . which ultimately translated to more points than its opponent.
"We tried to be solid, be in our gaps, just do what we do," Izzo said of his defense, adding that the turnovers they forced were not off of pressure but more of being in the right spots and being sound defensively.
"Offensively, not one of our best games," Marquette coach Shaka Smart said. "Michigan State played with great aggressiveness, particularly early in the game. Their aggressiveness and physicality affected us."
3. Marquette set under Smart
After winning the Big East regular season and conference tournament, Marquette established itself under Shaka Smart as a force to be reckoned with not only within the league but nationally, too. Not making the Sweet 16 is a bitter pill to swallow but it should not take away any momentum Smart and his staff have built the last year-plus. This program is set for future success -- and could be even better next year given how many players are eligible to return.
"Everything we experienced is an opportunity for growth," Kolek said. "We've grown more than any team in the country. Going into next year we want to keep growing, keep building, then go from there."