ATLANTA — With less than a minute left, the ball came off the rim and Andre Hutson rose to it like, well, like a Spartan. His big hands clamped, his elbows swung, and he owned that ball, he owned it, never mind that three Temple players tried to get it away from him, three men in black shirts, pulling, swiping, tugging, it was his, the ball was green, the score was green, the day was green, and the lights to the Final Four were turning green, too.

Get the boards, get the glory. With a philosophy that is more like hockey — dump it in, storm the rebounds, good things will happen — the machine that is Michigan State basketball has rolled to the Biggest Dance yet again.

And what was once a happening is now a habit.

“Three Final Fours in three years?” coach Tom Izzo said, shaking his head in amazement, after his Spartans ousted yet another team with a gimmick, this time Temple and its ballyhooed wear-you-down defense, to reach the final battle ground in its quest to defend the national championship.

“Even I have to give in to the idea that our program now shows
…consistency.”

Consistency? There are calendars that are less reliable. The Spartans take you on, wear you down, bang you sideways, and grab every shot that doesn’t fall through the rim. They do not rattle. They do not quiver. It is true that every game, there seems to be another hot hand, points-wise, and on Sunday afternoon it was David Thomas, the senior from Canada, who scored a career-high 19, including a crucial three-pointer, in the 69-62 victory.

But all you really need to know about Sunday’s South Regional final is this: in the last five minutes, the Spartans crashed the boards so effectively, that Temple got just one shot on all but one of its possessions.

You know what that does? It forces a team to be perfect.

And nobody’s perfect.

“When I came to Michigan State, we were going to the NIT,” Thomas said. “Now, three Final Fours in a row. It’s like …incredible.”

Get the boards, get the glory.

No time for underdogs

Now, the truth is, Sunday was a game — like several the Spartans have faced in the NCAA tournament — in which a loss would have fit conveniently into a theory.

The theory is, it’s really hard to repeat as national champions. The theory is, upstart teams like Temple — and Gonzaga before the Owls — have little to lose. The theory is, a team that loses three seniors from its championship squad won’t have the leadership to get there again.

Well.

That’s why we don’t play theoretical basketball.

The Spartans stepped over every pothole the critics could dig and played the game they have been playing in 27 prior victories this season. Crash the boards, clamp on the defense, depend on your leaders to find a way to get points.

Here was Zach Randolph, the freshman, grabbing one offensive board, then another, three in the final two minutes alone, 14 rebounds for the day. Here was Hutson, the big man, making like a guard, bounce-passing beautifully to Randolph for a lay-up and Jason Richardson for another. Here was Charlie Bell, the senior guard, spotting up for a three. And here was Thomas, battling personal sorrow over a gravely ill cousin who is dying from cancer back in Canada, rising above it for the moment, not only gunning long-range jumpers but slamming down a rebound one-handed, then roaring to the crowd.

“I just got rolling,” Thomas said, in typical MSU understatement.

Didn’t they all? By the final horn, the Spartans had 43 rebounds to Temple’s 27. They harassed Temple’s big gun, Lynn Greer, forcing him into 7-for-21 shooting. And they got the offense they needed from Thomas (19), Bell (14), Hutson (11) and Richardson (11).

In other words, just the way MSU draws it up.

“People have been doubting us all year long,” Bell said. “There’s no pressure because nobody seems to think we can repeat as champions.

“Me? I’m just happy to be playing with these guys for one more week of my life.”

Get the boards, get the glory.

An elite program

Now, a look at the bigger picture here. First off, the MSU players may want to drop that “nobody respected us” act before they get to Minneapolis. For one thing, it’s unworthy of them. It’s common. It sounds self-pitying.

More important, it’s not true. Experts picked Michigan State as a preseason favorite. They ranked them No. 1 in the country during the season. And they made them a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

Where exactly is the disrespect?

Besides — and this is the real story of Sunday — what the Spartans have done with this victory is put a lasting footprint in the sand of college basketball. Even if they don’t win it all, the return appearance of the men from East Lansing — third time in three years — creates the perception, and a correct one, that this is a premier program now, this is one of those teams that you expect to be there, this is a color, this Spartans green, that belongs in the Final Four, the same way as the varying shades of blue that are Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky.

What that does for future recruiting and team confidence is immeasurable.

“I was watching TV earlier, and I saw where Mike Krzyzewski from Duke was going to be in his ninth Final Four,” Izzo said. “And I thought, ‘Wow, we might get to three and be dwarfed!’

“But you know, I never hid the fact that I wanted this program to be elite. There’s just a process you have to go through.”

He smiled, perhaps because he knew the process was underway as he spoke. Back in the locker room, the players were soaked in Gatorade and water. Some were shouting and dancing. The nets had been cut down, Izzo had hugged his wife, Lupe, and the other members of the traveling family show that is Spartans basketball.

And even as he sat now, plans were being made, plane arrangements, news conferences, credentials, yet Izzo seemed relaxed, the picture of at least momentary contentment.

“I guess when we started the season,” he said, “I thought the bar was getting back to the Sweet 16. I’m not gonna lie and say I thought we could get back to the Final Four, because I guess I didn’t.

“But then as we started growing and coming together, these guys really wanted their own identity. They loved Mateen (Cleaves) and Mo (Peterson) and A.J.
(Granger), but everyone wants their own identity.

“The key was they were willing to work for it. They worked and worked and worked.”

And the result is, they have forged an identity of their own. Here is their identity: They don’t care about your gimmick. They don’t care about your seed. They have seniors (Bell, Hutson, Thomas) who can play level-headed. They have underclassmen (Richardson, Randolph, Marcus Taylor) who can come on in star bursts. They seem to mostly enjoy playing defense. And they have a simple philosophy about the loose basketball that more teams would win with if they could only adopt it.

That rebound is ours, and nobody else touches it.

Get the boards, get the glory.

Get the airplanes ready.

It’s happening again.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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