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 1.8 seconds remaining produced a 70-69 victory over Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final yesterday.
"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 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 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. North Carolina, which beat the Spartans in the title game, didn't make the tournament, nor did Connecticut. Villanova was knocked out in the second round.
Durrell Summers had 21 points and shot 8-for-10 for the Spartans (28-8), who led by eight in the second half.
Brian Williams pulled sixth-seeded Tennessee (28-9) within 69-68 on a putback with 2:10 left, and Scotty Hopson made the first of two free throws with 11 seconds left to tie it. But he missed the second and the Spartans' Korie Lucious ended up with the rebound.
Morgan was fouled close to the basket 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 inbound pass and had to heave up a prayer from midcourt that wasn't even close.
"What's unique is it's been a little bit more bumpy road," Izzo said. But Summers added, "Things happen throughout the season. Once we got to tournament time, we said we'll have a fresh start."