Saturday, April 4, 2009
One win away from mission possible
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
DETROIT -- There's no need to romanticize the importance of Michigan State beating Connecticut on Saturday night.
The Spartans advancing to Monday's national title game isn't going to change the depressed economy and suddenly put people back to work or change the future of the American automotive industry.
Michigan State celebrated its semifinal win over UConn by saluting the highly partisan Ford Field crowd.
What Michigan State did do was alter the Final Four like never before since it moved to domes on a permanent basis in 1997.
The NCAA set an attendance record of 72,456 fans at Ford Field. It's hard to give exact numbers, but more than half had to be playing partisan politics for the green and white as Michigan State beat Connecticut 82-73 in the first national semifinal.
"How can I put this in perspective?'' said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a true Michigander from the Upper Peninsula, who has a chance to lead the Spartans to their third national title Monday night and second of his career. "This arena was unbelievable. There sure were a lot of Spartan fans and it definitely helped us. It helped us build a lead. It was incredible. I wish that last 14 seconds would have lasted a lifetime.''
The crowd didn't force UConn to miss 12 free throws or A.J. Price to go 5-of-20 from the field. Nor did it force Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien to miss a combined 12 shots inside. The former was more of a fluke and the latter was a result of the Spartans' defending with a vengeance.
But there is something going on here with the Spartans that is beyond explanation. They are playing with more of a purpose than they did earlier in the season, as if they are motivated by more than just the desire to win a title.
Izzo said the Spartans, who ran out on a number of rebounds to score in transition, do play freely outside of the Big Ten. It's not because the Big Ten holds them down, Izzo said, but rather the coaches in the league are so good at defending and locking teams down.
Still, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said there's something special going on with Izzo's club.
"The Michigan State team that I saw on tape that played against Purdue, a team we happened to beat, or the Michigan State team we saw on tape against Wisconsin, a team we happened to beat, didn't play like this,'' Calhoun said. "The Michigan State team I saw against Louisville [in the Elite Eight] was as good a team as I saw on tape all season.''
The Spartans ran past the Cardinals to beat them at their own game and win by 12 in the Elite Eight last Sunday in Indianapolis.
"They're so much more athletic than everyone thinks they are,'' Calhoun said. "They're one of the most underrated teams athletically. The team that's playing now is on a mission, a mission for Detroit.''
The players say the right things when asked to respond about the economic downturn of this state. They have been asked to name names of people who they know who have been laid off.
On Saturday night Kalin Lucas let everyone know it was OK to be from Detroit.
Instead, Kalin Lucas took the opportunity to make a statement of his own. He usually is announced as being from Sterling Heights, Mich., before each game. But for Saturday he wanted to be introduced as being from Detroit, his grandmother's hometown. Sterling Heights is just outside the city, but Lucas wanted Detroit.
"I had to,'' said Lucas, who scored a game-high 21 points. "She's from two minutes from here. I wanted to do it for Detroit, have a little bit of sunlight to Detroit. They've had hard times and maybe we can give a little bit of sunlight to Detroit. This is a dream come true.''
Izzo played this game perfectly, using his bench to outscore Connecticut's reserves 33-7. He was able to use six bigs against UConn and got inspired play from Draymond Green (8 points) off the bench and Raymar Morgan in the starting lineup (18 points, 9 boards and 5 steals).
The Spartans knew they had the depth advantage and could run on the Huskies as long as they rebounded too. They ended up even on the boards at 42 each, and in this instance against the 7-foot-3 Thabeet, Izzo said he would gladly take the final rebounding numbers.
Knocking off No. 1 seeds Louisville and Connecticut in consecutive games proves the Spartans are on quite a roll and deserve to be called one of the best teams this season -- at the most important time. Izzo said the Spartans didn't dodge anyone, playing a more talented than normal 10-seed in USC in Round 2 and the Big 12 outright champs in No. 3 Kansas in the Sweet 16.
"I'm not sure any of those teams if we played them 10 times that we would win many of them, but all you have to do is win one,'' Izzo said.
This is the same Spartans team that lost at home to Northwestern and Penn State during the Big Ten season. Even though both teams were improved, those losses were unprecedented in East Lansing.
So on Monday, with the city of Detroit and the state revitalized emotionally from the weekend, the Spartans have a chance to do something memorable -- win a title essentially at home.
"What can you say, the city is going to be nuts the next two days,'' Izzo said. "I'm so happy for them, for us and happy for Michigan State. I'm not sure what it's going to be like to wake up on Monday. The best thing may be not to go to bed so I don't have to worry about it.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.