An outright Big Ten championship. A roster with a pair of NBA lottery picks. A head coach as battle-tested as any leader in the country.
Oh, and the first two tournament contests would be de facto home games. Little Caesars Arena was packed with screaming Spartan support.
Everything was laid out beautifully.
Then Jim Boeheim appeared. And that nasty 2-3 zone. The one he’s been unleashing on rattled opposing offenses for 42 years.
And there’s still no solving it.
Clank Off the Rim
Michigan State tossed up 3 after 3 on Sunday afternoon, with each clank off the rim louder than the one before it. For the game, the Spartans converted just 8-of-37 from beyond the arc, and two of those makes were ultra-lucky banks off the glass.
The Syracuse offense was just as futile. In fact, it attempted just 42 shots to Michigan State’s 66.
But the Orange got to the foul line a bunch and made the most of those opportunities (24-of-31).
And somehow when Boeheim looked up when the clock hit triple-zeros, his team’s 55 points were enough to win by two -- 55-53 -- and dance on to the Sweet 16.
Commentary by Allan Lengel: With the Nassar Scandal So Fresh, it Didn't Feel Right for MSU to Win it All
The statistics are stunning.
Syracuse collected just three assists. Made one lonely three-pointer. Allowed an eye-popping 29 offensive rebounds while gathering just seven of their own.
But that darn zone never takes a minute off. It forces you to take a slew of 22-footers, many of them contested or with the shot clock melting away.
Miles Bridges used all his makes on Friday against Bucknell. Same for Josh Langford. Matt McQuaid sank a miracle triple to end the first half, but missed his other six attempts. Cassius Winston would seemingly find a rhythm for a beat, only for it to vanish the next time he rose for a jumper.
Law of averages would suggest that at the very least, one player on a basketball team would step on the court and shoot the ball well. Most nights, two or three would have their stroke working. Only in the rarest of instances does every single member come out pancake-flat in the same 40-minute period.
Yet, that is precisely what happened. Tom Izzo’s squad came up empty on its final 14 shots over the last 5:41 of the game. The fact that Winston even had a desperation heave to potentially win the game is a minor miracle.
Pegged as 2018 Champs
Just a week ago, seemingly every talking head on ESPN had the Spartans pegged as 2018 national champions.
Those experts did not foresee the Boeheim-directed horror show that was set to poison Little Caesars Arena.
Michigan State is not a program that rebuilds. Instead, it tends to reload with a slew of decorated recruits descending on the banks of the Red Cedar each fall.
But regardless of what the future holds, this was an opportunity lost. Some called the 2017-18 Spartans the most talent-rich roster Izzo has ever had. And now it is over after just two tournament games.
All because of a defensive alignment that’s as simple as it is deadly.
Maybe someone will eventually solve the 2-3 riddle. But today was not that day.
A fact that Izzo and the Spartans know all too well.