FIRST-ROUND KOSPARTANS BEAT UP ON THE LITTLE KIDS BECAUSE IZZO FEARS THE BIG ONES

MILWAUKEE — The ball came loose and several players reached for it, bending at the knee. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo flew off the bench, cursing through clenched teeth. He looked as if he’d just popped a blood vessel.

“YOU X#@$#!! DIVE for that X#@$#!! BALL!”

He spun and yelled for a substitute. Out came the offending Spartan, Jason Klein, with Izzo turning his back angrily, ignoring him, biting his tongue, as if the kid had just spat at his family crest.

And his team was winning by 23 points.

Welcome to the first round of March Madness, where, if you’re a No. 1 seed like Michigan State, the game isn’t really the game you’re playing, the opponent isn’t really the team on the floor, and the things that set you off aren’t the things you see but the things you don’t.

So Izzo went ballistic because he wants his kids diving not necessarily for that ball, but for every ball in the future. And he buried his face in his hands more than once not because he was really worried about losing this game to lowly Mount St. Mary’s — his team would win easily, 76-53 — but because making those same mistakes against a better team will get you beat.

“I knew by his face when we came in at halftime,” guard Mateen Cleaves said.
“It was so red. It was like an apple! Man, when he gets like that, you just get in your seat and strap on your seat belt, ’cause he’s gonna take you for a ride.”

Let’s face it. For guys like Izzo, and for favored teams like MSU, games like Friday night’s first-rounder against 16th-seeded Mount St. Mary’s — a school whose entire population could fit into an MSU lecture hall — are no-win situations. Blow the little guys out, and you’re only doing what’s expected. Struggle, and people question your skill, your ranking and your manhood.

So when the Spartans came out a little flat, and the Mount — that’s what its students like to call themselves, the Mount, and who are we to spoil what little fun they have? — when the Mount came out hitting a few three-pointers, well, you could hear the tongue-clucking all the way across Lake Michigan. The Spartans threw the ball away. They missed some easy shots. They looked, at certain moments, like, well, like the team they were playing.

But this is normal. You don’t change your oil without getting your hands dirty. You don’t eat pizza without squirting a little cheese. And you don’t play inferior teams without getting a little sloppy yourselves.

Eventually, like an airplane coming through turbulence, the big ship rights itself, and things go smoothly.

Exhale.

A halftime firestorm

The Spartans did. Eventually, Morris Peterson hung in the air and hit one of those twisting four-footers. And Cleaves went the length of the floor, got fouled and hung long enough to bank in the layup as well. And just before halftime, A.J. Granger squared against a sagging Mount defense (can Mounts sag?) and banged in a three-pointer. The lead was 14 and the game, if not the score, was pretty much decided.

Not that you’d know it by Izzo’s halftime speech.

“I’d rank it in the top 10 angriest of the year,” Peterson said.

“He chewed some people up,” Cleaves added.

But can you really blame him? Already in the first round, such storied programs as North Carolina, Arizona and UCLA have been unceremoniously booted by the likes of Weber State, Oklahoma and Detroit Mercy. Don’t think Izzo didn’t hear a ghostly voice echoing in his head, “The biggest upset in the history of college basketball took place tonight, when the Michigan State Spartans fell to . . .”

No. That wasn’t going to happen. The nice thing about this Spartans team is when its shooting goes flat it can always play defense. The Spartans clamped down on the awkward and gangly Mountaineers (15-15), forcing them to shoot 29 percent in the second half and outrebounding them by 46-22. And while Peterson, MSU’s leading scorer, was held to just eight points — same as Cleaves — he did have 12 rebounds, and Cleaves had eight assists, and the Spartans overcame their turnovers and moved on to play Mississippi on Sunday.

“Look, don’t make me out to be the mad hatter,” Izzo said afterwards. “These guys know they can play better.

“But it’s like …you know what I hate? I hate hearing coaches on TV after a game saying, ‘We came out flat, and we were never able to get it back.’ We were never able to get it back. That’s what scares me. That’s why you can’t let it happen.”

March Madness. It’s maddening.

More on the Mount

A few brief words about the Mount. It is a lively bunch, although its entire rooting section seemed to be five rows of young kids waving blue-and-white balloons, the long, thin kind you can bend into animals. I wasn’t sure if it was basketball or a first-grader’s birthday party.

The coach, Jim Phelan, is a legend, owning the second-longest career in the history of college hoops. How long has he been coaching? He has former players on Social Security. He calls Strom Thurmond “kid.” In his trophy case, he has balls, nets and peach baskets.

OK, it’s not that bad. I just wanted to use those lines. Phelan is in his 45th year of coaching, which is remarkable, especially if you saw Izzo’s steaming face Friday night. You wonder how anyone lasts a decade in this business, much less four.

But that’s what comes with being a favorite. It’s likely MSU will lift its game as the tournament continues. But if you’re a Spartan fan and your nerves are a bit jangled this morning, remember, as a No. 1 seed, you don’t always dominate your games; at times you don’t really win them. You survive them, and your reward is getting to toss out that team’s game film and throw in somebody else’s.

“At one point tonight,” Izzo said, “I told myself, ‘Aw, lay off ’em.’ “

He paused.

“Then I said, ‘Nah, stay on ’em.’ “

March Madness.

You want calm, watch golf.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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