St. Louis The players come and go, the years pass. About the only thing that doesn't change is Tom Izzo and Michigan State's mastery in March.
The fifth-seeded Spartans are on their way to their second straight Final Four and sixth in 12 years after Raymar Morgan's free throw with less than 2 seconds left lifted Michigan State to a 70-69 victory over Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final Sunday.
"There is nothing greater than going to a Final Four that I know of," Izzo said, "except winning it."
No team in the country — not North Carolina, not Kansas, not UCLA, not Kentucky — has been better during the Spartans' run. And all six of those trips have come under Izzo, the hard-nosed coach who preaches defense, rebounding, defense, physical play, and have we mentioned defense?
Izzo, who took over from longtime mentor Jud Heathcote for the 1995-96 season, is 6-1 in the regional finals. His only loss was to top-seeded Texas in 2003.
"Tom Izzo does his best in the NCAA tournament," said Magic Johnson, who sat in the Michigan State cheering section and embraced Izzo after the game. "He loves the big moment. He understands what he needs to do against every team. He comes up with a great game plan every single time. He deserves all the credit in the world."
The Spartans, last year's national runner-up, will be looking for championship No. 3 next weekend in Indianapolis. They play Butler, also a No. 5 seed and sure to be the hometown favorite, in the semifinals Saturday night.
"They're hot right now. They're playing some of their best basketball," Morgan said. "But we're also hot right now. We're playing some of our best basketball."
Michigan State is the only team from last year's Final Four to make it back. Heck, North Carolina, which demolished the Spartans in the title game, didn't even make the NCAA tournament. Neither did Connecticut, and Villanova was knocked out in the second round.
How's this for some symmetry? This happens to be the 10th anniversary of the "Flintstones," the team that gave Michigan State its second national title. Highlights from that run were included in the video montage of past championships that played on the Edward Jones Dome's massive Jumbotron during halftime.
The Spartans (28-8) led by as many as eight in the second half, but Brian Williams pulled sixth-seeded Tennessee (28-9) within 69-68 on a putback with 2:10 left. Korie Lucious, who took over as point guard after 2009 Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas ruptured his Achilles' tendon last weekend, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 29 seconds left and Scotty Hopson got the rebound.
Hopson was fouled at the other end, and made the first. But after a Michigan State timeout, he missed the second and Lucious — generously listed at 5-foot-11 — ended up with the rebound. Morgan was fouled by J.P. Prince with 1.8 seconds left and made the first. After timeouts by both teams, Morgan bricked the second shot on purpose.
Williams came up with the rebound and Tennessee called a quick timeout. But Prince fumbled the inbounds pass and had to heave up a prayer from midcourt just before the buzzer.
"It's just tough, 1 second," Prince said. "You want to shoot it perfect but you've got to rush. You don't want it to come down to a half-court shot, but that's what it came down to."
Prince wasn't even close, and Michigan State and its fans — led by Johnson, the Spartan-in-chief — began the celebration that's practically become a rite of spring.
"What's unique is it's been a little bit more bumpy road," Izzo said.
Bumpy? More like missing big chunks of asphalt.
While Izzo is a master at reloading on the fly, this might have been his toughest test. In addition to Lucas' injury, Delvon Roe is playing on a torn meniscus and Chris Allen is nursing an aching foot.
The Spartans have been forced to go with an offense-by-committee but, somehow, it works. Durrell Summers, who's taken over the bulk of the scoring, finished with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting despite playing just 9 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. Morgan and Draymond Green added 13 each, and Morgan also had 10 rebounds.
"Things happen throughout the season," Summers said. "Once we got to tournament time, we said we'll have a fresh start."
Tennessee, meanwhile, will have to take comfort in knowing it got further than any other Volunteers team. This was their first appearance in the regional finals, and there is no question they belonged. They made their first six shots of the game — going 4 for 4 from 3-point range, shot 51 percent overall and had four players in double figures, led by senior Wayne Chism's 13 points.
Prince finished with 12 on 5-of-5 shooting, and Williams had 11.
"It's going to stick with us," senior Bobby Maze said. "Anytime we watch college games or during tournament time, we'll always come back to that very moment where we were just too short."
Tennessee has long been a basketball powerhouse — in women's hoops. But coach Bruce Pearl has energized the men's program, as evidenced by the orange-hued dome and the Vols' first appearance in the regional final. Few would have thought the Tennessee men would last longer than the top-seeded women, who were beaten by No. 4 Baylor on Saturday in the regional semifinals.
"We came to St. Louis expecting to win two games and we played pretty well both nights," Pearl said. "We saw all that orange out there. This isn't close to home, either. They got in their car and they drove here. I think they enjoyed this group tremendously."
Though they were going against a team that oozes experience — "Final Fours are a big thing in this program," Green said Saturday — the Vols came in with swagger and strut.
But confidence is no match for toughness, and few can match that of Michigan State.
"I said (before the game), 'You put yourself in a position where you have a chance to do something you talked about,'" Izzo said. "Not many people get a chance to do that."