It’s the next-best thing to being there and, let’s be honest, we got to be there last weekend. The Palace was wild. The Palace was the wish-you-luck-out-there party.
Now our two ambassadors to college basketball’s Big Dance have left the nest, off to Indiana and Texas, to see if the splash they made in the past two rounds can become a tidal wave in the next.
Again, tonight, they are back-to-back. This time, on your TV.
It will take dynamics to advance this duo. For the first time in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, the Spartans and Wolverines play higher seeds. Third-seeded Michigan State faces Duke, a No.2 seed with a kingly pedigree. And fourth-seeded Michigan plays No.1 seed Kansas, in its 24th straight Big Dance and no slouch in the hoops history department.
The big question: Which Michigan school has the better chance at advancing?
The answer? How about both?
“That’s the beauty of our conference,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said this week. “So many different coaches, so many good coaches, and because everyone plays a different style, we face teams that want to run, to play zone, to run certain patterns.”
The result? Nobody’s scared. It’s not like Duke or Kansas invented a new kind of basketball. Not like they shoot at 9-foot rims. Remember, thanks to the strength of the Big Ten, U-M already has faced, at the time, a nationally ranked No.2 (Indiana), No.9 (Minnesota), No.9 (Michigan State) and No.10 (Ohio State.) Three of those four are alive in the tournament.
As for the Spartans? Already faced a No.1 (Indiana), No.4 (Michigan) No.7 (Kansas), No.9 (Minnesota) and No.10 (Ohio State.)
Scared? Why should anyone be scared?
“Early on, when you play a Miami on the road, when you play on (an Air Force base) in Germany, these are all big settings with distractions,” Izzo said. “And the NCAA tournament – there’s distractions to it, too. There’s more media, more people. You get to the Sweet 16, the kids go home, everyone is talking on the TV, the newspapers, radio, Twitter…. You got to learn how to handle distractions, and one of the ways you do is by handling them in those early games.”
Big names? Big deal!
Izzo’s Spartans are tough, athletic and no strangers to this round or level of challenge. It comes with the program. In four of its past five Sweet 16s, MSU played Louisville, Kansas, Memphis and Duke. (By the way, the Spartans beat the Blue Devils that year, 2005, en route to another Final Four.)
“Duke very seldom beats themselves, so you’ve got to beat them,” Izzo said. “They’ve got shooters, they’ve got a good post player, they don’t have great depth. They’re really good – but they’re beatable.”
When Izzo says that, you know he means it. The trick is imparting it to every member of his sometimes erratic team. The players have come together a great deal these past few weeks (no matter how many towels they throw at each other). Izzo even chose to take the bus to Indianapolis rather than fly, because the “togetherness” is good for chemistry that leads to titles.
Back in the saddle
Michigan, meanwhile, flew to Texas and Cowboys Stadium, where it will reacquaint itself with the deep postseason. The last time it got this far was 19 years ago. There were still members of the Fab Five on that team.
“We have to grow very quickly, and we have,” coach John Beilein told the media Thursday in Arlington, Texas. “Particularly over the last month, through the ups and downs.”
The Wolverines will have to keep their eyes on the steady Jayhawks, none bigger than 7-foot senior center Jeff Withey, who has been shooting close to 70% the past month, and who blocks shots as if protecting a picnic basket. He has 141 blocks this year.
One hundred forty one? This year?
“We’re going to have to use shot fakes a lot and try to get him up in the air and maybe try to get him in foul trouble,” Mitch McGary told the media.
“I know he’s one of the best shot blockers, if not the best, in the country,” Trey Burke added during the news conference. “My job is to try to hit the lay-up when I can and the big man when I can. It’s all off reads from Jeff Withey, really.”
The keys to victory
Now, whichever way this goes, let’s take a moment to appreciate the moment. It has been a long time since both major programs in our state have been this good at the same time.
Michigan had its run, then ran afoul. Michigan State grew up, got a title and a satchel full of Final Fours. Now both programs are equally legitimate contenders.
The Wolverines are younger, maybe a little softer, but just as capable of advancing to the Elite Eight as the Spartans. Their key is to not think too much about where they are or who they are playing. Every team says “we’re here to take care of business” but these are still college kids, they get starry-eyed, they try too hard, they freeze up at the worst moment. And Cowboys Stadium is no place for the faint of heart.
The Spartans, meanwhile, need everyone at full throttle – particularly Derrick Nix, their big and beefy center. When he is on, many sins are covered. If Adreian Payne is as effective as he has been, and Keith Appling isn’t hurt, there’s no reason the Spartans can’t win this one, particularly if the benches get involved.
We had them at home. Now we get them on the tube, same night, complementary times. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the NCAA is trying to do our state a favor. But I know better. You make your own luck in this maddening tournament. Here’s hoping midnight brings us a reason to write this story again.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.