by | Mar 21, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Basketball for lunch. Basketball for dinner. Michigan State with soup and chips. Michigan with veggies and dessert. Never before in the history of March Madness have the Spartans and Wolverines been so close – and so close at hand. A No. 3 seed. A No. 4 seed. Same building. Same court. Afternoon. Evening. A day/night doubleheader today at the Palace.

It’s like having Mike Krzyzewski for coffee and Dean Smith for drinks. Like having the Fab Five on your front porch and the Flintstones in the backyard.

It’s a smart and welcome pairing that may let local ticket sales at least approach national hype. The NCAA tournament, defying patterns of years past, has finally put both Michigan teams close to home, the Spartans against Valparaiso at 12:15, the Wolverines against South Dakota State at 7:15.

The funny thing is, either local team could win the whole enchilada.

Or never get to an airport.

“It’s nerve-racking,” says Mateen Cleaves of the win-or-go-home format that requires six victories for a national championship. The former MSU star captured a title with his Spartan teammates in 2000 – and had two regional wins in Auburn Hills. “You gotta be a special player to want and play in that. Me, I loved it. I loved the challenge. … It’s like growing up playing in Flint. You lose a game, you got 30 other guys on the sideline waiting to play.

“It takes a special guy, special team, special players to do it.”

Win or go home.

Or in this case, just get in your car.

Why the Wolverines win

So who has the better chance? Let’s first look at Michigan. Rarely have I seen such a swing in opinion. In early February, the Wolverines were ranked No.1 in the nation and everybody loved them. Now, some pundits have them losing today’s opener against No.13 seed South Dakota State, or almost certainly losing in the next round, Saturday, to fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, considered a sleeper in the tournament.

This is the same Michigan team that just saw Trey Burke named national player of the year? Uh, hello? That means the best college player in the country is wearing Maize and Blue? Yet everyone is talking about Nate Wolters from SDSU. Why? Is it so that people can say, “I told you so” later? Is it so much more fun to pick upsets?

“They’re lacking defensively,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas says of Michigan, “so I can understand it. But we are sort of a prettiest-face-to-walk-by-lately culture…. As soon as a team loses a few games, they’re out of the picture.”

The Wolverines fit that bill. Their last two trips to the well of opportunity, they pulled up an empty bucket. Indiana beat them in Ann Arbor by a point, 72-71, to deny them a share of the Big Ten title. And after a first-round win over lowly Penn State, U-M fell badly to Wisconsin, 68-59, to bow out of the Big Ten tournament.

The Wolverines are capable and they are vulnerable. They are Superman flying past Kryptonite, Popeye with his last can of spinach. Burke can light up anyone, he can win a game by himself, but the Michigan defense can lose any game no matter how many Burke puts up.

The Wolverines are one of the best shooting teams in the country. But that’s hard to sustain for six straight games. Rebounding and defense must play a part at some point.

The question is, does that point come before or after they leave the state to play a game?

Why the Spartans win

Then there is MSU. The Spartans played a game for the ages against Michigan in February, winning by 23 points. But that was in East Lansing, that was one night, and even coach Tom Izzo laughs and tells the news media that he wishes he could “bottle that.” That MSU team could win a national title in a runaway. But we may never see such a performance again.

The truth is, the Spartans, while better defensively and on the boards than Michigan, are still like a hillbilly’s smile – you never know how many teeth you’re gonna see. One night, the big men will show up – putting MSU in rare air – and another night, you’ll wonder why those large bodies are not delivering large stats.

Keith Appling is clearly the chosen leader of this year’s group, but there have been nights where Appling has been more like Grappling, and Izzo needed a heart-to-heart with his leader toward the end of the season. The kid all but disappeared.

“Gary Harris (the other guard, a freshman) is great. I really love that kid,” Cleaves says, “but at the end of the day it’s got to be Keith Appling. He’s got to be that guy for MSU to have success…. It is what it is, when you’re the point guard at Michigan State University, that’s what you sign up for. The ball is in your hands 90% of the time.”

How much will home court be an advantage? Some, for sure. But all teams involved should enjoy the noise. Anyone who has attended early-round tournament games can attest that March Madness can sometimes be Spring Snooze. Empty seats often abound. Cheering is sporadic. That’s going to happen when you send a team from Florida to play in Spokane.

It’s embarrassing. After competing every night in wildly loud college arenas, teams in the opening round can feel as if they’re playing in the library.

The Spartans and Wolverines should have no such problem at the Palace. And I don’t buy that stuff about one team’s fans booing for the other. For the most part in our state, we root for any team with “Michigan” in its name over any team without it.

So grab your box lunch and Tupperware your dinner. Bring the green foam finger for one hand and the blue foam for the other.

Tom Izzo, John Beilein. Keith Appling, Trey Burke. Green and white, maize and blue – all in one building, in one nine-hour stretch of March Madness.

It’s historic. It’s unique. We may never see it happen again.

Unless it happens on Saturday.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com



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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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