INDIANAPOLIS — Things looked so easy for Louisville in Friday's Midwest Regional semifinals against Arizona. Wide-open three-pointers. Forced turnovers that led to points in transition. Clear lanes to the basket for easy dunks.
The Cards, though, were facing a completely different animal in Sunday's finale.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, having four Final Fours already under his belt, is no lame duck or empty suit over on the sidelines, and Izzo put on a coaching clinic in his first-ever matchup with Rick Pitino.
Those open looks for threes were nowhere to be found for the Cards, and the pathways to the rim were completely clogged. The Spartans handled U of L's press with no problems, and disrupted the Cardinals offense with tough, physical man-to-man.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
That led to a result that not many people saw coming: A rather easy 64-52 win for the Spartans over the top-seeded Cardinals and a fifth Final Four for Izzo, tying him with Pitino for third all-time among active coaches.
Michigan State was ready for U of L's vaunted 2-3 zone. Izzo put skilled big man Goran Suton near the free-throw line at the middle of the Louisville zone, and the 6-foot-10 center killed the Cards with mid-range jumpers after Izzo pulled him less than four minutes into the game.
"Coach Izzo told me if I didn't shoot he was taking me out, so I had to shoot," Suton said.
"That's where we felt we could get it," Izzo said. "(Suton) really operated in there. The way they extended (the zone), there were openings. I didn't pull him out for any other reason other than to ask him what the hell he was doing. Once he settled down, he wasn't good in there. He was awesome. He was great."
Suton, who had made just 15 three-pointers coming into the game, stepped out and hit three shots from beyond the arc in the first half. His third three gave the Spartans a 25-24 lead with 2:25 left until halftime, and MSU led 30-27 at the break.
"I think the difference was the first-half confidence they got," Pitino said. "Suton hitting those shots against our zone was very big. He doesn't take a whole lot of (threes). We let him step out and take those shots and didn't rotate properly. I think that was the difference in the first half."
MSU's defense completely took two key U of L starters out of the game. Terrence Williams, one of the country's best players down the stretch, laid an egg in his final collegiate game, scoring just five points and going 1-for-7 from the field.
"I really don't know what happened," Williams said. "I guess it was execution. They ran their offense and we didn't."
Freshman forward Samardo Samuels missed all six of his shots from the floor and committed four turnovers in 22 scoreless minutes.
Pitino said his team might have been thrown off by State's in-your-face man-to-man after facing zones for most of the latter part of the season.
"What worried me the most, the last seven games we just got zones and we haven't played against man-to-man in so long," Pitino said. "The whole tournament has been zone for us. I think that was our biggest problem, is the fact that the last six, seven games we probably have had 90 percent zones. We got very good at going against zones, but that man-to-man gave us trouble tonight because our inside attack wasn't there."
The Spartans, the nation's leader in rebounding margin, beat the Cardinals on the glass 37-29. Freshman Draymond Green came off the bench for 10 rebounds to go along with six points, and Suton also grabbed 10 boards.
State had perfect spacing operating against the Louisville zone, and once other Spartans joined Suton and starting making outside shots, the party was over.
Durrell Summers hit a jumper just inside the three-point line to make it 43-37 at 11:33. The next time down the floor he stepped back and drilled a three to give MSU a 46-37 lead with 10:50 left.
Perhaps unfairly, both the Big Ten Conference and Izzo have taken some shots for the perception that they play slow, boring-to-watch basketball. But Pitino said Michigan State's physical play bothered his team. Louisville had zero fast-break points for the game.
"I just think that it was a grind 'em game," Pitino said. "... Though we've played slow and won this year, they're probably a little bit better at that style than we are. We couldn't get out on a break as much as we wanted. The tempo was definitely in their favor."
It's the second straight year that Louisville's season ended in the Elite Eight. North Carolina took the Cards out last year. While Pitino pointed to U of L's Big East regular season and conference tournament titles as signs of a successful season, there was clearly a sense of disappointment among the players.
"I ain't going to lie, I'm not even going to watch the Final Four," said U of L junior Earl Clark, who led the Cards with 19 points. "We should be there. I think we're the better team. We missed out on a great opportunity."
Meanwhile, Izzo will take the first step toward adding a second NCAA trophy to his impressive list of accomplishments when the Spartans face UConn in the Final Four next weekend at Detroit's Ford Field.
With the win, Michigan State guard Travis Walton, the team's only fourth-year senior, extended Izzo's streak of having every four-year player he's recruited to East Lansing appear in a Final Four. Walton said the players knew Izzo would have them prepared for the Cards.
"I know he had to stay up until 5 or 6 in the morning," Walton said. "He came up with a great plan. He promised us that if we gave him everything we've got, he'd give us everything he's got, and he stuck to his promise."