HOW SWEET IT IS FOR MICHIGAN STATE

WORCESTER, Mass. – When the ground is full of land mines, you don’t celebrate how you got across, you celebrate that you can celebrate.

Which explains that whooping noise in East Lansing. This year, more than most, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is mined with semi-obscure teams, drunk on adrenaline and just waiting to explode beneath the cocky feet of an established program. Ask Syracuse. Ask Kansas or Wake Forest. Ask the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies.

They’re all clearing out their lockers this morning – after one weekend of March Madness.

Michigan State is still playing.

That itself should be cause for congratulations – and a nod to the Spartans, who have been much maligned for all they haven’t done. Here’s what they did do: They kept their heads when many around them were losing theirs. MSU knocked off Old Dominion and Vermont, the Nos. 12 and 13 seeds, to advance to the Sweet 16.

And you know what?

It was harder than you’d think.

“Low-seeded teams can make every game like they’re playing for everything,” said center Paul Davis, who led the Spartans on Sunday afternoon with 14 rebounds in their 72-61 victory. “But on the flip side, we are, too.”

Sure, Vermont is a good place to ski, watch the leaves and run for office as a Democrat – but not to play basketball. Sure, the university is in such a vacuous hoops state, its starting lineup has one guy from Prague, one from Canada and one from Cameroon.

So what? That didn’t stop the Catamounts from a first-round knockout of Syracuse, whom many had pegged as a Final Four team. Vermont had nothing to lose and the world to win over. It had four seniors, a beloved, departing coach, a cute team name, a devoted fan base, a cheering, packed arena and the karma of the national media looking for a good story.

Michigan State, with its fragile psyche, was a pluckable feather for the Vermont cap.

Instead, MSU stayed serious and grounded. It used its beehive defense, its superior talent and its fast-break explosiveness (the Spartans had 16 points on the break, the lumbering Catamounts had two) and it was bye-bye, Cinderella, hello, Austin.

Harder than it looks.

Checking their egos at the door

“I believe that talk radio and the Internet have made it very tough for players on a favored team in big programs, because they keep hearing how good they are,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said after the victory. “It blows things out of perspective. My staff did a good job of finding everything we could to remind our guys how good Vermont was.

“And then, we had the advantage of everything our guys have been through. When you get beaten up like they have, there are no big egos.”

Leave it to Izzo to turn torturous scrutiny into an asset.

But you know something? He’s right. A more bloated team – say, Syracuse – might look at Vermont and its paper-thin bench and its single star, a blond-cherubic giant named Taylor Coppenrath (I’m sorry, but shouldn’t that name be studying literature at Cambridge?) and say, “Aw, this’ll be easy. Let’s look ahead to Duke.”

MSU doesn’t look ahead. It doesn’t look behind, either. Behind is a past of criticism and failed expectations – especially for the seniors. Ahead? Ahead is a dream that might singe the Spartans if they gaze at it too long.

So they dig in, as they did Sunday, and swarm the other team’s best player (Coppenrath was 5-for-23) and they push the ball up the floor and when they get one hot shooter (Maurice Ager, 19 points), one hot big man (Davis with his 14 rebounds) and mostly head-ups play (only nine turnovers), they can win. They can beat almost anybody.

Even the nobodies.

“It’s always easier to be the hunter than the hunted,” said Kelvin Torbert, the senior who had a fine game, 14 points and two rebounds off the bench. “You have to face a lot of pressure when you’re the higher seed. You can’t let yourself get caught up in the emotion.”

The age of the underdog

The truth about college basketball these days – and this weekend proved it – is that the fences are coming in. The distance between the great programs and the obscure ones, especially in a one-and-out tournament, is less than it has ever been.

There are two reasons for this. One, the marquee players who used to single-handedly steer teams to the Final Four – and who almost always went to big-name schools – are now in the NBA, having jumped early or skipped college altogether, meaning the talent differential is not as great as it once was.

Second, with AAU ball and summer leagues, so many college kids have faced each other before, in other settings, that the aura of the school uniform is not what it used to be. That’s why you see kids from tiny schools hitting an upset-making shot and racing around with a chest-thumping attitude of “How dare you doubt me?” It’s because they see themselves on the same level as the kids they’re playing, even if the recruiters didn’t. Which makes what the Spartans did that much more impressive. It didn’t come down to a last-second shot. It didn’t require a breathless comeback in the second half. MSU got a straight-arm on its opponents this weekend and kept them at a comfortable distance. These days, that’s as much as you can hope for in March.

Things will change now. Duke looms Friday night in Austin, Texas, and it’ll be the top-seeded Blue Devils asked about overlooking the fifth-seeded Spartans. People will talk about Duke’s amazing consistency, its amazing coach, its unflappable program.

That’s OK. If Izzo wants to show his guys Davids slaying Goliaths, all he has to do, this year, is look in any direction.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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