MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The uniforms will not do it. No one is impressed. The Michigan State Spartans may be defending national champions, but no opponent is going to fall over at the sight of them.
The names will not do it. No one is impressed. Never mind that Charlie Bell, Andre Hutson and Jason Richardson were part of a title run last year. No opponent will quake in its boots, swallow air, go all goose-bumpy when they take the floor.
The clippings will not do it. Nor will the team photos, the banner, the sight of Tom Izzo or the gleam of a championship ring. No one is impressed. Last year is last year, and nobody even remembers last week in this tournament, let alone 12 months ago.
If Michigan State wants to go back-to-back, the Spartans will have to go toe-to-toe. With everybody — the elite teams, the great teams, even the not-so-great teams, like the one they faced Friday night, the one they barely held off in the first half, and had to dig down to dispose of in the second half.
“They were not afraid of us, you gotta give them that,” said coach Tom Izzo, after his No. 1-seeded Spartans advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament with a 69-35 victory over 16th-seeded Alabama State. “I think that’s the way it’s gonna be in college basketball. Everybody has good players now. Nobody is scared.”
And, at least at the start, nobody will roll over. Nobody will say, “Ohmigod, these are the SPARTANS, they won it all last year, we can’t play with THEM!”
If MSU doubted that before the jump ball Friday night, it realized it quickly enough.
Who were these guys who were zoning them like shadows, ripping rebounds away, pinning their lay-ups to the board, getting awkward shots to drop? The Alabama State Hornets? A team from the — gulp — SWAC? A team that had never been in the NCAA tournament before?
“I think they were watching TV and seeing all the upsets on Thursday,” Bell would later say. “I think they figured, ‘If other teams can do it, why not us?’ “
Of course, a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed.
Where’s the crowd?
The Spartans may be holding the crown, but there was nothing regal about Friday night. Truth is, it was more like a tomb, and I’m just talking construction. The arena was called the Pyramid — as in the Egyptian home for the dead — rising in the middle of Memphis because, if I am to believe my cab driver, “Egypt is on the Nile and we’re on the Mississippi.”
Anyhow, here was a largely empty — pyramid-shaped — arena, where the bands made far more noise than the crowd. If the Spartans were expecting a sellout due to, if nothing else, curiosity (“Come see the defending champs!”), they were mistaken.
It was, to quote John Lennon, just like starting over.
“I’m sure a lot of people were watching on TV,” Bell said, giving new meaning to the word “spin.”
Of course, in the first half, the Spartans wished no one were watching. MSU was listless and listing. Aloysius Anagonye had his first lay-up attempt pinned to the board by a Hornet. Richardson dribbled off his foot on a fast break. David Thomas missed a lay-up after a lob. Marcus Taylor alley-ooped to Hutson but the ball smacked off the backboard.
Meanwhile, Alabama State, playing as if this were just another five-on-five back at the gym, grabbed a few rebounds, blocked a few shots, stole a few passes, and made just enough baskets to hang around.
A late, four point-play by the Hornets dropped the halftime score to MSU 29, ASU 25.
Fortunately, for MSU, a game is 40 minutes long. And the Spartans cranked up the second half with the kind of speed and dominance they will need every night. Credit Richardson, the sleek sophomore, for gunning the engine. He came flying in to slam home a rebound. He made a pretty bounce feed to Hutson. He hit several jumpers with photo form. And he sank so many reverse lay-ups, I forgot which basket the Spartans were facing.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I try to make ‘energy plays,’ plays that will get the team up. But tonight it was more like the chances were just there for me.”
And gradually they were there for his teammates, too. They tightened the defense, and a four-point halftime lead quickly went beyond 10, then beyond 20, then beyond 30.
Alabama State cracked, going nearly 14 minutes without a point. The challenge had been met. By the end, it was as easy as Hutson rebounding with one hand and dropping the ball softly back in, as if returning a fallen bird to the nest.
Final score: Michigan State 69, Alabama State 35.
Blowout? In the end, yes. But know this: The Spartans had to rev it up to win it, and they might as well hide their uniforms, rings, news clippings and scrapbooks the rest of the way. If a Southwestern Athletic Conference team that has never been to the Big Dance before refuses to even blink at the oncoming headlights of the national champs, then don’t expect anyone else to move over.
One victory, five to go. None will be pushovers. But then, the Spartans should feel that in the air down here.
After all, this is the home of Elvis, and life is never easy for the king.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.