Every team must fear MSU, Michigan in NCAA tournament

by | Mar 17, 2014 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Here’s what you’ve been missing. That’s what Branden Dawson seemed to be saying with every straining muscle behind his tomahawk dunk Sunday in Indianapolis, one that put the Spartans deeply ahead of the Wolverines and deeply into the worry zone of every team in this year’s NCAA tournament.

Here’s what you’ve been missing. Down went that dunk. Down went a Gary Harris weave through traffic. Down went a Keith Appling behind-the-back, twisting, scooping lay-up. Down went an Adreian Payne three-pointer.

And, finally, down went Michigan and its highly touted offensive machine, losing the chance at a No. 1 seed to a more physical, more defensive, more opportunistic group of Spartans. The Wolverines, the Big Ten champions, will be a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance’s Midwest Regional, the Spartans, Big Ten tournament winners, a No. 4 seed in the East, and nobody, trust me, wants to play either one of them — although Michigan State casts the scarier shadow right now.

If all this sounds familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, it’s because we have grown used to seeing young Michigan play surprisingly well, but we are finally — finally! — seeing the Michigan State team that many predicted as a national championship favorite back in November, before a rash of injuries did a Humpty Dumpty on Tom Izzo’s plans.

Well, better late than summer. The Spartans, over the last two weeks, reassembled themselves like the ripped-apart scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz.” Their chests are now pumped out — not from hay, but from making it.

In three opportunistic days, the 22nd-ranked Spartans crushed Northwestern, straight-armed No. 12 Wisconsin and absolutely caged No. 8 Michigan. The last two teams were contenders for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

So, in theory, MSU kind of knocked off half of a Final Four.

OK. Maybe that’s a stretch. But Izzo’s gang got healthy in a hurry, and — a Harris sore shoulder notwithstanding — the Spartans are arguably the scariest team in the tournament right now. They rebound hard, they defend hard, they are finding their rhythm and they have a coach who has been there many times.

On Sunday afternoon, they beat a great Michigan team by 14 points — while shooting a miserable 2-for-17 from three-point range!

Here’s what you’ve been missing.

The road to Texas

“We were so much better defensively in the whole tournament,” Izzo told CBS after the 69-55 victory. “We beat two great teams — both were worthy of one seeds.”

And though the run only boosted the Spartans to a No. 4 seed in the East, they seem blessed with a winnable path, opening Thursday against No. 13 seed Delaware, a team the Spartans should easily handle, then likely facing a No. 5 seed and offensively challenged Cincinnati, before the biggest looming threat, the streaking and suddenly top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who beat Duke on Sunday to win the ACC tournament and grab the last undetermined No. 1 seed. Should the Spartans pull off that game, it is likely Villanova would be standing between them and another Final Four appearance.

Michigan’s path, meanwhile, should all the favorites win, would have the Wolverines facing lowly Wofford in Thursday’s second round in Milwaukee, then Texas in the third round, Duke in the fourth and the undefeated Wichita State Shockers to get to the Final Four. Not easy. But then, the Wolverines made the championship game last year with much lower expectations.

On Sunday, however, the Wolverines were mortal. In the third U-M/MSU showdown of the season — the first ever in the Big Ten tournament and the first time Michigan and Michigan State faced each other outside state lines — Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas never found a rhythm. He had four baskets all afternoon. Glenn Robinson III was almost invisible. Michigan was stripped and ripped, with MSU turning nine U-M turnovers into 18 points and, with their big bodies finally healthy, solidly winning the rebounding war, 38-28.

Remember, though Michigan won the first two meetings, MSU did not put a healthy lineup on the floor either game. Dawson missed both showdowns — which may be why he so enjoyed his 15 points and six rebounds Sunday. Payne, who missed the first match-up, led the Spartans with 18 points and had a monster block of a Robinson shot that charged up Spartans fans and made scouts around the country scribble notes. Most likely they read: “Hope we don’t play these guys.”

Here’s what you’ve been missing.

The best of times

And here’s what we get to enjoy. An absolute golden era in our state’s college basketball history. It’s extremely rare to say, in the same year, that both the Spartans and the Wolverines have legitimate shots at a national title. But the way John Beilein seems to rally his young team (consider what it has done without possibly its biggest star, Mitch McGary) you cannot count the Wolverines out. They almost won it all last April.

And the Spartans? Forget the No. 4 seed. There was a reason everyone had them so high on the preseason lists. That past is now the future. The way the Spartans played Sunday, banging, defending, stealing, finding open men, they could have hung with — if not defeated — any team in the country. If they’d had any kind of three-point shooting touch, they’d have won by 30. Against the Wolverines!

Here’s what you’ve been missing. It was a beautiful sight to watch Beilein and Izzo shake hands with each others’ players, knowing how well they all now know each other, knowing each had recruited some of the others, knowing they are all playing in this glorious state. The days of North Carolina and Duke are legendary. Same with Kentucky and Louisville. But this year, there is no finer or more excellent pair of rivals going to the Big Dance than the Maize-and-Blue and the Green-and-White.

And in case you’re wondering, five more victories for each and they’d meet again, in the house that Jerry Jones built, in Arlington, Texas, for the national championship.

They have played each other three times this season.

Anyone for a fourth?

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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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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