- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

The T-shirts read "Marching Step by Step" across the back.

Underneath, it read in order, "Big 10 Tournament, Sweet 16, Final Four, NCAA Champs."

That was the apparel worn by Michigan State players in warmups for recent games not during each of its previous three campaigns, when the Spartans were ranked in the top 10 and reached the Final Four.

The Spartans started 0-3 in the Big Ten this season and looked like a tournament bubble team in mid-January. By season's end, coach Tom Izzo and the Spartans played to the caliber of their shirts.

"He never let us believe that our goals could change," said Mat Ishbia, the lone senior on the team.

The Spartans (19-11) didn't win the Big Ten, but they are seeded 10th in the East Region. They play N.C. State (22-10) today in the first round at MCI Center in the unfamiliar position of NCAA tournament underdog. Should Michigan State win, it likely would face another program that has won a national title in the last three seasons second-seeded Connecticut.

The programs that have won two of the last three national titles are back in the NCAAs, though the 1999 champion Huskies (24-6) had to settle for an NIT bid last season. Three seasons removed from its title, Connecticut has bounced back.

Despite playing its freshmen more than any Top 25 team except Arizona, Michigan State finished with the second-best record in the Big Ten. With another top recruiting class on the way, the Spartans could get back to the top 10 next season.

The Spartans' performance this season stands as one of the most impressive in the country. Between graduation and the early departure of young players Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph, the Spartans lost six of their top eight scorers from last season. As if that weren't enough, they withstood injuries to three of their top seven players, including sophomore Adam Wolfe's season-ending torn hamstring in January.

"Earlier in the season, we were expected to win games, and we didn't know exactly how to win them," said sophomore Marcus Taylor, who struggled with the effects of a concussion in midseason. "As the season went on down the stretch, we started to pull games out and we knew how to read situations that determined whether we won or lost."

The Spartans learned quickly. Michigan State won eight of 10 to finish the season including five by six points or less and beat Illinois and Ohio State twice. Taylor fueled the finish, averaging 22.2 points and 5.3 assists over the final six games, and became just the second player to lead the Big Ten in points and assists in conference games.

"Toward the end of the season, I started feeling more confident," Taylor said. "We were losing games down the stretch early in the Big Ten season, so I felt I had to take a different approach and be more aggressive."

Like the Spartans, UConn finished the season on a roll the Huskies won their last nine games, culminating with a double-overtime Big East tournament championship victory over Pittsburgh.

Sophomore Caron Butler, the Big East player of the year, has led the Huskies' return to prominence, but freshmen Ben Gordon (13.2 points) and Emeka Okafor (4.2 blocks) have figured prominently as well. No matter who forms the cast, the expectations remain just as high.

"You should never be disappointed with 25 wins, but I think we were [two seasons ago]," coach Jim Calhoun said. "But some people in Connecticut were disappointed. … It does make you greedy because you know what's out there, the great opportunities."

Remarkably, junior guard Tony Robertson is the only UConn player with NCAA tournament experience, leaving the No.2 seeded Huskies with a fraction of the experience enjoyed by first-round opponent Hampton. But under Calhoun, the team has some maturity.

"We're on a nine-game winning streak, so I think we've matured and learned how to deal with success in the right way," Butler said. "It's very hard to play in a program like Connecticut because of what is expected, but I think we've fulfilled that to this point."

Robertson said things have been much more businesslike this season for the Huskies, and trying to avoid a return trip to the NIT was a major source of motivation. Now that they're back in the NCAAs, they have their sights set on getting back to familiar ground for the program the Final Four.

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