ATLANTA — Now the truth can be told: Not even the coach expected Michigan State to be packing for another trip to the Final Four.
Tom Izzo had reason to be pessimistic. After all, the Spartans had to replace their two best players, Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, plus a third starter, A.J. Granger, from last year's national championship team.
But there was Izzo and a new group of Spartans cutting down another net Sunday afternoon, having placed themselves among the elite programs in college basketball history by reaching the Final Four for the third year in a row.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Izzo said after Michigan State held off Temple 69-62 to win the NCAA South Regional. "I didn't think we would get back to the Final Four.
"But these guys wanted their own identity. They liked Mateen and Morris and A.J. But they wanted their own identity, and they were willing to work for it."
David Thomas scored 19 points, including a key 3-pointer with about a minute to go, and Michigan State became just the ninth school to reach three straight Final Fours.
"I never thought we would do it three years in a row," senior Andre Hutson said. "You have to consider us an elite program now."
Even the hard-to-please coach had to admit this was something special.
"To be in three straight Final Fours says something about consistency," Izzo said. "Is our program looked at the same way as Kentucky and Duke and North Carolina? Maybe not. But we're trying to get there."
John Chaney is still trying to get to the Final Four.
The 69-year-old Temple coach dropped to 0-for-5 in regional finals, including two heart-wrenching losses in the past three years that left him stuck with a dubious title: Best coach without a Final Four on his resume.
"It's a tragedy that we couldn't get over this hurdle," Quincy Wadley said. "He's getting up there in age, and he might not get this opportunity again."
The rumpled coach, a black tie dangling loosely from his neck, spent much of the game chomping on gum and shouting instructions from the edge of his seat. The 11th-seeded Owls (24-13) trailed all the way, but it wasn't until Thomas' trey with 1:01 remaining that their fate was sealed.
"It's so difficult not being able to make that final step," Chaney said. "It was one missed rebound, one missed ball in our hands. But that was a tremendous team we played."
It always takes a powerhouse to keep Chaney out of the Final Four. In his five regional finals, the Owls have lost to a No. 2 seed and four No. 1s, including the Spartans.
Michigan State (28-4) advanced to Minneapolis for a meeting Saturday with Arizona, an 87-81 winner over Illinois in the Midwest Regional in San Antonio.
The Spartans were serenaded with chants of "One more year! One more year!" during the net-cutting ceremony.
The biggest cheers were reserved for Izzo, the former graduate assistant from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who has the highest NCAA tournament winning percentage (.889) of any active coach.
"The pressure is not off," said Izzo, who is 16-2 in tournament play. "I want to win another championship."
Chaney made some key adjustments that helped keep Temple in the game, such as switching away from his trademark 1-3-1 matchup zone for a more traditional defensive alignment. But his game plan didn't give much attention to Thomas, a senior forward averaging just 5 points a game.
Given plenty of open looks, Thomas took advantage for a career-high in points on 8-of-10 shooting. He also had seven rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Chaney "is a great coach and he has great ideas, but maybe this wasn't one of them," Thomas said.
Freshman Zach Randolph denied Temple with yeoman work on the offensive boards, grabbing two rebounds that set up key points for Michigan State down the stretch.
The nation's top rebounding team lived up to its billing with a 43-27 advantage over the Owls, who hit only 38 percent from the field and were often limited to one shot and out.
Randolph had 14 rebounds and Hutson 10; no Temple player had more than eight.
Michigan State is only the third team to reach three straight Final Fours since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Kentucky was the last three-peater in 1996-98, winning two national titles with a title game loss sandwiched in between.
Duke is the last team to win two straight titles, in 1991 and 1992.
The Spartans lost in the semifinals two years ago before winning it all last season. They have a 10-game winning streak in the tournament, though their run of double-digit victories ended at nine.
Temple was trying to equal LSU in 1986 as the lowest-seeded team to reach the championship round.
The Owls won their first three tournament games by an average of more than 15 points, only to fall tantalizingly short of getting Chaney to the Final Four.
The Owls might have gotten over the hump with a better game from Wadley, averaging 21 points in the tournament. Shadowed by Charlie Bell, Temple's senior guard was held scoreless in the first half and wound up with only four points on 2-of-12 shooting.
Lynn Greer led Temple with 22 points, and Kevin Lyde added 21.