In a locker room in Detroit last April, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo searched for the right words, struggling to console a disappointed group of athletes and convey his pride in their effort despite a lopsided loss to North Carolina in the national championship game.
That's when a freshman spoke up. Draymond Green, a chatterbox who at the time logged more words per minute than minutes per game, prognosticated about the Spartans' future and eased some heartache.
"It was him who said that big statement about, ‘You know, a year ago North Carolina was getting beat by 40 at Kansas, and now they're national champs,'" Izzo recalled Green's telling the team.
Izzo said it was a glimpse to of "what the future was going to bring for that kid, as far as having the ability to see beyond the moment."
Green doesn't need to look far to see the Spartans' future now.
Michigan State is back in the Final Four for the second straight year and for the sixth time in 12 seasons, facing Butler on Saturday in Indianapolis. The winner will play either Duke or West Virginia for the championship Monday.
Despite the Spartans' starting the season ranked second nationally, Izzo thought Michigan State would struggle after losing two seniors. He bemoaned the lack of chemistry and leadership, even opening the doors to the Breslin Center for a team sleepover in hopes of building a tighter bond among players.
Though the Spartans hit bumps, losing four games in February and getting booted in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, they managed to jell in the NCAA tournament. Losing point guard Kalin Lucas to a torn Achilles' tendon at halftime of the second-round victory against Maryland was certainly a blow, but it gave the Spartans a sense of purpose and motivation.
Green is often the first to remind his teammates of this and, well, everything.
"He's just a different breed," guard Durrell Summers said. "He's one of the loudest guys. He wears his emotions on his sleeve like Coach does."
Green may be the most valued sixth man in the nation, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound sophomore averaging 9.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game — all in the top three among active Spartans players.
He thought he might break into a starting role this season after a solid tournament performance as a freshman, but he learned he didn't need to be on the floor first to make an impact. He averages more than 25 minutes a game.
"I felt like [a leader] at the beginning of the year but it wasn't my chance," Green said. "I just had to keep doing things to show [Izzo] I can lead. Finally, he pretty much said, ‘I'm going to give you a shot.'"
His best play of the season didn't even make the stat sheet. He found Raymar Morgan under the basket against Tennessee and Morgan drew a foul with 1.8 seconds remaining, sinking the winning free throw to advance to the Final Four.
It was a play that showcased Green's ability to see the floor. Izzo even has a five-play package for Green tucked away in case he decides to have him run the point and take pressure off Korie Lucious.
"He can do a lot of different things," Izzo said. "He can handle the ball. He's becoming a much better shooter. He has a great IQ defensively and offensively, where he can pass the ball."
He honed those assets at Saginaw (Mich.) High, where he sometimes ran the point. He averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead Saginaw to consecutive state titles and earn a scholarship offer from Kentucky. He withdrew his oral commitment after Tubby Smith left for Minnesota.
"It wasn't like Draymond was a McDonald's All-American," Izzo said. "He was this little big funky-chunky guy who had a lot of skills. But it just has worked out for me. It has worked out for him."
Green and Izzo jawed at each other for the first eight minutes of the Tennessee game, Green said, when "even if I didn't make a mistake, he'd yell at me. So I just started yelling."
That's nothing new for the emotional coach and player, both of whom are rarely at a loss for words. After the game, they embraced, and they often joke with each other during news conferences.
Green sounds as if he has at least another pep talk left in him.
"We put it all together and made it to the Final Four," he said, "but this is not our goal. Our goal is to win the national championship."