The Blues have it. No. Wait. The Greens. The Greens have it, don’t they? Or is it the Blues? Well, the beauty of today’s basketball feast is that we don’t have to pick. Michigan can win. Michigan State can win. There is no “either.” There is no “or.”
The never-before might happen by tonight. Our two biggest college basketball programs could reach the Final Four – together.
How’s that for a “state” of affairs?
Whom do you favor? The Wolverines, right? They just find ways to advance – despite blowing leads. “We’ve had a lot of that this year,” coach John Beilein admitted to the media Friday night, after losing a 15-point edge over Tennessee, “but a win is a win.” And the Big Ten regular-season champions survived the surging Volunteers, 73-71, with the shakiest of plays – a charging call that went their way.
But it went their way. So today they play in Indianapolis for their second straight Final Four. And whom are they playing?
Michigan vs. Kentucky. That’s what the marquee reads. But in reality, the Maize and Blue will be taking on … the Fab Five.
Not since U-M nabbed Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson has a team had as many McDonald’s All-American recruits as Kentucky’s freshman class. There are six of them. Six? And five are starters.
Not surprisingly, watching the Wildcats is like watching baby videos in hyper drive. Drool flies away. Diapers become shorts. Legs and arms sprout long and lean. And next thing you know, they are defeating the defending NCAA champion, Louisville, as they did Friday night.
The Wildcats are all over the place. They can bobble passes, miss assignments, force shots, stand in the wrong place – but also drain three-pointers, muscle for athletic put-backs and show no nerves when they’re supposed to show nerves.
Much like the original Fab Five (a sixth seed in its first NCAA tournament), Kentucky came in seeded eighth and already has disposed of No.1 seed Wichita State and No.4 seed Louisville. All these seedings are probably wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Kentucky had more points at the end.
Now it’s Michigan’s turn. Can Beilein’s team handle this? The Wolverines have youthful enthusiasm themselves, but they are positively ancient by Kentucky’s standards. They start a freshman, three sophomores and – gasp! – a senior. Jordan Morgan must look like Methuselah to Kentucky.
So the Blues have it, right?
Weapons and defense
Or do the Greens have it? How do you pick against MSU? The Spartans are carrying, as coach Tom Izzo joked to the media, the expectations of two presidents – “Obama and Vitale.” Everyone thinks they are destined for Texas. And why not? On Friday night they faced Mike Tyson, Ken Norton and George Foreman – also known as the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers – and took a beating. Yet bloodied and unbowed, the Spartans advanced by a basket, 61-59.
Now they face Connecticut.
And they, too, are facing … their past.
The next-to-last time MSU was in a Final Four, in 2009 at Ford Field, it beat UConn to reach Monday night. In the fall of 2012 – the Huskies’ first game under new coach Kevin Ollie – UConn beat MSU at a U.S. Air Force base in Germany.
Madison Square Garden seems about right.
Can MSU win in New York? Of course. Branden Dawson’s return has been like fixing a flat tire. With all their pieces back, the Spartans are like a “Transformers” movie, morphing into something powerful every game. UConn has a senior guard, Shabazz Napier, from its 2011 national title team. But the Spartans boast an awful lot of weapons. And when their defense jells, as it did Friday night, it’s hard to leave the room alive.
The Greens have it, right?
A shot at hoops history
Well. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. OK. Let’s get ahead of ourselves. If U-M and MSU both win, it will be history, the first time both schools reach the Final Four together. And with victories next Saturday, they’d become the first teams from the same state to meet for the NCAA title in more than 50 years.
That’s just two victories away. Not so farfetched.
True, both teams got to this point by having one more basket than their opponents Friday night. You do worry that Kentucky is on one of those destiny rolls. And you worry that UConn, a seventh seed, has very little pressure.
But this is not smoke and mirrors. U-M and MSU are both really good. They played in a challenging conference (the Big Ten had three of the Elite Eight teams) and the last time either one tasted defeat was when they played each other.
The Blues have it? The Greens have it? This we know for sure: North Carolina is no longer represented. California is also history. There are two games left for the Final Four, and we’ve got claims to both of them.
What a state to be in!