IT’S GREAT TO BE GREENSPARTANS TREAT OPENER AS A TUNE-UP FOR THE BATTLES SURE TO COME

CLEVELAND — This is when you know you’re for real in college basketball. When you use the first game of the NCAA tournament to get your subs some playing time.

That’s pretty much what Tom Izzo did Thursday night, on the first rung of the ladder of dreams. While most teams in the Big Dance treat every game as a sprint — All-out, men! No letup! Do or die! Now is the time! — the Spartans, luxuriously, can view it as a marathon. Take it slow. Be smart. Work on what you’ll need for later. After all, let’s be honest, Michigan State didn’t really need to worry about losing to Valparaiso, its 16th-seeded opponent. A bigger challenge would be spelling the name of the school.

No check that, a bigger challenge would be spelling the names of the Valpo players. This is a roster that boasts two players from Croatia, one from the Czech Republic, one from Latvia and one from Finland. No offense, but when you say “big dance” to those guys, they’re thinking Independence Day.

(By the way, how is it that the NCAA can inspect every test paper written by an American high school recruit, yet two guys from Split, Croatia, somehow end up in Valparaiso, Ind., and nobody asks any questions? You want to know why? Because they can’t read the transcripts, that’s why.)

Anyhow, Izzo knew Valpo would be Alpo, even if he wouldn’t admit it. “You’re always worried about a first-round upset,” he said, after the Spartans, uh, eked out a 65-38 victory. “They’re a good team. They can do some things.”

True. But a cocker spaniel can do things, too. If Valpo was that good, why did the Crusaders shoot 25 percent for the night? Why did they need nearly the whole game to break 30 points? If they were so good, why did they call time out after 44 seconds? I’m not kidding here. Two quick baskets by the Spartans and — tweeeet! — the Valpers were on the sideline, huddling up.

COACH: Are we in the right place?

PLAYERS: Rztyazca a ytaer? (Serbo-Croatian for “Why are you asking us?”)

Anyhow, Izzo, a smart guy, could see this developing. Which is why, within the first four minutes, he had already inserted freshmen Jason Richardson and Adam Ballinger. A few moments later, here came backups Mike Chappell and David Thomas.

So much for the starting lineup. Ballinger had six points before Mateen Cleaves had any. Richardson was the leading scorer at halftime. Subs and starters switched partners on the fly, like a hardwood square dance.

Not that it made any difference to Team Bennetton, a.k.a. The Valpo Crusaders, who had only three points — three points? — until 6:45 left in the first half.

“Were they speaking English out there?” someone asked Ballinger.

“Yeah,” he said, “but with an accent.”

Subs work overtime

By the time the game ended, it was an equal opportunity night for MSU. Backup Ballinger logged nearly as many minutes (20) as starter Andre Hutson (21). Chappell had nearly as many minutes (14) as starter Charlie Bell (16). And Richardson, the slithering freshman, had nearly as many minutes (25) as All-America and Big Ten player of the year Morris Peterson (27).

This, of course, was smart basketball by Izzo and his staff. The knock on this team is its bench and its depth, so why not work on those soft spots? Being able to do it under tournament conditions is even better, like getting to test your parachutes during combat — with no fear of being shot down.

“Especially when we had that cushion in the second half, yeah, you start to think about things you’re going to need for the next game,” Izzo admitted. “I knew we were going to need some of our bench guys — like Al (Aloysius Anagonye) — on Saturday, so we wanted to get some work in now.”

This is the mark of a mature coach on a mature team. A team that knows winning doesn’t mean you did everything right. (“We didn’t rebound well, and we didn’t hit shots we could have,” Izzo noted, ever the pessimist.) Then again, it’s not exactly like Valparaiso was breathing down the Spartans’ necks.

“I keep looking at the scoreboard and waiting for it to be higher,” said forward A.J. Granger. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Gee, it’s kind of late in the game for the score to be so low, isn’t it?’ “

I dunno. Maybe they count differently in Spilt.

The journey continues

Anyhow, one-sixth of the climb to glory is over. A dangerous step, for sure, because bigger favorites than the Spartans have fallen in the first round. Not that I can think of any right now, but it seems like the proper thing to say.

For the most part, Thursday was a sloppy game, lots of weird bounces, misfired shots, dropped passes. This is what happens when one team is trying to run plays and another is just running all over. But there were important flashes. Richardson has remarkable athleticism — an alley-oop jam off a pass from Cleaves nearly brought the house down, as well as the rim, and Richardson swooped and swarmed his way to 10 rebounds and nine points — and he served notice that the Spartans may indeed have a bench weapon.

And he can jump through the hoop.

More important, the Spartans have the savvy not to trip over an inferior opponent like the Crusaders — along with the maturity not to make too much of it afterward.

“I gotta admit, I did wonder when they called time out in the first minute,” said Cleaves, in his trademark toothy smile. “I thought, ‘Man, a time-out already? They must have some trick plays they’re putting in!’ “

Yeah. What’s Croatian for “Hail Mary”?

Never mind. This one is dust. Saturday brings Round 2, a stiffer test against a tougher opponent. You know. The kind that makes you play your starters.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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