Continued from page 1

The Spartans showed why by beating top-seeded Virginia on Friday in the sort of gritty, physical game Michigan State has so often won in March. Still, Izzo isn’t sure this group quite has the edge yet “that just refuses to lose” of some of his past teams - Appling is the guy who can provide that, and he’s not 100 percent.

Since Izzo took over in 1995, every player he’s recruited who stayed four years has reached a Final Four. If the Spartans lose Sunday, Appling and Payne would be the ones who snapped that streak.

To Izzo, players accept that pressure when they sign with Michigan State.

“I’m hoping for true competitors,” he said. “Fear drives us all.”

Appling chose Michigan State because the program was coming off two straight Final Four trips. He pushes himself at practice every day by reminding himself of that streak.

The seventh-seeded Huskies’ seniors have played in a Final Four, winning a national title as freshmen. They’ve also experienced missing the NCAA tournament altogether.

UConn was barred from last year’s tourney because of previous low scores on the NCAA’s academic progress measure. Ineligible for any championships, the Huskies opened last season against Michigan State in Germany in coach Kevin Ollie’s first game after Jim Calhoun’s retirement.

UConn upset the 14th-ranked Spartans that day. Izzo could tell “Kevin’s teams are going play hard and will play disciplined.”

All those practices when the Huskies supposedly had nothing to play for are now rewarded by victories in the biggest games.

“That’s what faith is all about,” Ollie said. “When you can’t see it, you still got to believe it. Most of the time we couldn’t see it last year.

“But we knew we were continuing to plant seeds, and sooner or later it was going to be that right time when we were going to be ready for this moment.”