by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

DAYTON, Ohio — Throw out your hands. Make two fists. Wave them around over your head and start running backward.

Hey, hey, hey, do the Spartan Shuffle.

Or The Scott Skiles Shuffle, really. But what’s the difference? He is this team, like it or not, and every time he backpedals after a score and does that little “whoopie” step that looks as if he’s punching someone in the face, he is injecting magic into Michigan State, this little basketball team that can-can. And who knows how far it will go?

It’s going one step farther now, because Saturday Skiles and crew danced with giants and left them crippled — 80-68, MSU over Georgetown — and the shuffle, already the rage of East Lansing and Dayton, is now headed for Kansas City, the Midwest Regional final of the NCAA tournament, and the people there better watch their noses.

Did we say Georgetown? They beat Georgetown? Yeah. That’s right. Big Georgetown. Big John Thompson. Big Ralph Dalton. Big Ronnie Highsmith.

“Big deal,” said Skiles.

Take no prisoners. This was basketball with your fists clenched, and the whipmaster was Skiles. All day. He had 24 points and five assists, and that doesn’t even begin to tell you what he accomplished. He doesn’t lead; he commandeers. He is forever calling the shots, pointing fingers, issuing threats, slamming his body into defenses, canning baskets.

You don’t beat the likes of the Hoyas with simple numbers. You beat them by stealing their concentration. And throughout this charged-up afternoon, the Hoyas seemed to be watching Skiles against their will, looking at him the way a condemned man might glance at the blade when his head is in the guillotine.

And Skiles was dancing. Skiles jump-starts the Spartans

Remember, for a moment, that MSU was picked for the bottom half of the Big Ten. A team whose center averages 2.2 points. A team of small in a game of big. A team which rides the wild surf with Skiles hanging 10.

Remember all that, and then consider that Skiles was one- for-seven in the first half and yet the Spartans never faded, mostly because he wouldn’t let them. “This may have been as good a game as he’s played all year,” said coach Jud Heathcote, precisely because, despite the shooting drought, Skiles refused to be quiet. He dragged his team into this contest through passing and quarterbacking, as someone might drag an uncooperative dog to the park, until the team started running on its own.

And then it started to run away. It began with a highlight film clip, 14 minutes left in the game, MSU leading, 43-40. And then came the thumping of Skiles’ sneakers, like distant war drums, clomping down the hardwood floor and moving fast. He had Larry Polec on the left, Vernon Carr on the right and the ball coming off his palm in a gleeful dribble. Forget it. Skiles drove the middle, put the ball behind his back, looked right, dished off left — what the . . . ? — and Polec banked it in for two, and the crowd went half-hysterical, and it was never that close again.

“Routine play,” Polec said. “He does that all the time. I knew I was going to get the ball. I just didn’t know how.”

MSU ran off an 11-2 spurt, Skiles regained his shooting touch, and Georgetown, the gray T-shirt mob, the NCAA finalist last year, was bent and beaten, half its players bandaged at the knees and the other half in foul trouble. As the final minutes ticked off, all Thompson and company could do was stare at Skiles celebrating.

Like watching the Grim Reaper breakdance. Mission Impossible in KC?

So now what? Goin’ to Kansas City, that’s what. A regional final against Kansas — the second-ranked team in the country — right in the Jayhawks’ back yard. Sounds impossible. Which means it may be tailor-made for the Spartans.

Say it now. This is a well-coached team with several good players — Darryl Johnson, Carr, Polec — and one superstar. A team that’s already gone farther than anyone dreamed. Yes, Skiles has a dark past: several arrests, lots of in-court drama. But that is another day, another story. This is the present, and the present is a clenched fist and a backpedal and a “Wooo! Wooo!” war cry.

Call it the Spartan Shuffle. With MSU two victories away from the Final Four, there may be a lot more people doing it this week. And maybe . . . next week?

“We’re not trying to get in the final 16,” Skiles said after Saturday’s win. “We’re trying to get to the final game.”

Hey, hey, hey.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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