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Saturday, March 29, 2014
Michigan State versus UConn? Elite, indeed

By Kieran Darcy



NEW YORK -- The seedings tell us Michigan State and Connecticut don’t belong here anymore.

But we know better than that, don’t we?

Michigan State versus UConn … just let that simmer for a moment.

This isn't a matchup of No. 4 and No. 7 seeds. It’s the college basketball equivalent of a heavyweight fight, making it only fitting that Madison Square Garden will serve as host.

Michigan State
After a tough regular season, Branden Dawson has been a big part of Michigan State's postseason run.
Just do the math. Seven Elite Eights since 1999 for the Huskies. Eight Elite Eights during that same span for the Spartans.

The fans of these two teams are spoiled rotten. And we will be, too, come Sunday afternoon.

“We understand when you get to an Elite Eight, you’re gonna play one of the best teams in the country. Michigan State is one of those guys,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Saturday. “Great guards, great big guys, great tradition, great coach and it’s gonna be definitely a dogfight.”

“We have got more experience inside. They have probably got a little more outside,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think for the most part, both of us got a decent amount of experience to be playing in an Elite Eight game, and I think that’s what should make it a great, great game.”

Both teams entered the season with lofty expectations, each residing in the Associated Press Top 25. Connecticut was ranked 18th and picked to finish second behind only Louisville in the inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference.

Michigan State was 16 spots higher -- just a sliver behind Kentucky in a virtual tie for preseason No. 1.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a season, for both teams. UConn opened 9-0 but then suffered back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU four weeks later and dropped out of the national rankings entirely. The Huskies finished tied for third in the AAC, but were embarrassed by Louisville in the teams’ regular-season finale 81-48.

Michigan State was 18-1 in late January, looking every bit as good as expected. But then the Spartans, thanks in part to several injuries, lost seven of their final 12 regular-season games -- including a stunning loss to Georgetown here at the Garden on the first day of February.

Seems like ancient history now.

Speaking of history, that’s been the theme in New York this week. After all, these are the first NCAA tournament games in 53 years at Madison Square Garden.

But two Michigan State players are trying to avoid making history Sunday. If the Spartans don’t beat UConn, seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will become the first four-year players in Izzo’s 19-year tenure to fail to reach at least one Final Four.

“That’s the extra chip that we have on our shoulders,” Appling said. “So we’re just kind of embracing the moment.”

Izzo said it was something the team talked about early in the season. “I didn't bring it up as much in the last two months, because we had so many other things to deal with,” Izzo said. “Yet I'm starting to hear them talk about it, and I think it's a good thing.”

This isn't the last chance for junior forward Branden Dawson, but he’s certainly playing like it is. Dawson scored 20 just once in the first 35 games of the season, including missing nine games with a broken right hand after slamming it on a table during a film session. But he had 26 points and nine boards in the Spartans’ third-round win over Harvard, and followed that up with 24 and 10 against Virginia on Friday.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Dawson said, of all the criticism the team heard during that rough stretch. “A lot of people on campus, we went to go get something to eat, went to the stores, a lot of people were just asking us, ‘What's going on with the team?’ Some people said it was my fault.”

If Michigan State is playing with a chip on its shoulder, then Connecticut is playing with ... well, an even bigger chip. UConn was banned from postseason play one year ago, meaning the Huskies -- despite finishing 20-10 -- were home watching March Madness.

Actually, they didn't even do that. “I actually couldn't even watch the tournament last year,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “It was so painful.”

The program could have imploded -- after all, these players were being punished for the academic sins of their predecessors. Instead they stuck together, with eyes planted firmly on the following March.

Shabazz Napier, Monte Morris
After sanctions kept UConn out of the NCAA Tournament last year, Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are enjoying their Elite Eight run.
“It gave us a lot of motivation. We wanted to be in that tournament, but we couldn't,” Napier said. “I felt like we had chances to either let it bring you down or motivate you, and I think we let it motivate us.”

“Just find positives in everything -- that’s one thing I've learned from Coach [Kevin] Ollie,” Boatright said. “Any negative, you try to find the positive.”

Ollie has done a fine job navigating this program through such a challenging period. But he’s still in just his second year, trying to replace Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.

So far, so good -- but this is still uncharted territory. “Those are things I can’t control,” Ollie said, of the high expectations. “What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion.

“I can't be Coach Calhoun," Ollie said. "But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own."

So, let’s review. Two college basketball programs with a combined five national championships, and 15 Elite Eight appearances in the past 16 years -- and yet both teams still feel as though they have something to prove, at this late stage of March?

Sounds like the recipe for a classic -- a bout to remember, and worthy of the storied setting.

Now all that’s left is to ring the bell.