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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Some things don't change

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Whether it's Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten, San Diego State and Boise State joining the Big East (or maybe not, after all), or the Atlantic 10 having 16 teams, some of which are in the Central time zone, college sports is basically unrecognizable. This isn't an old man's lament as much as it is a simple and irreversible fact. Change -- bizarre, wanton change -- is occurring at such a rate and without much rationale (outside, of course, the great, unassailable dollar) that only the truly dedicated will take the time to keep score.

College football recognized that its power far overwhelmed that of the NCAA long ago, and college basketball has followed, along with the hypocritical business veil of amateurism. There's no way out.

Tom Izzo
Dawson's knee has come around and so has his game.

The games matter, certainly, as do the teams, but the narrative of the game, the one played in the imagination, is what creates the foundation for caring in the first place. The money grabs and redistricting that are rewiring the college landscape are just making it easier to check out.

As the oases of tradition become rarer, an appreciation increases for what it is familiar and compelling about the game. There is still, naturally, the NCAA tournament and its made-for-DirecTV upset watch on eight screens simultaneously, as well as the too-late showcasing of teams that have been good and underexposed all season; too late, that is, for the favorite about to be sent packing.

There are still the regional favorites, the rivalries that make sense with the proper criteria: geographic familiarity, healthy respect (and some dislike), as well as excellent games over the years. Legendary programs Kentucky and Indiana (last year's national champion and this year's No. 1 team) aren't on the schedule this year after playing annually since 1969, but Kentucky-Louisville is Dec. 29 and Georgetown and Syracuse still play each other twice.

Michigan State basketball and its coach, Tom Izzo, however, might be the best oasis in a changing world that makes less and less sense.

If the San Antonio Spurs, with an aging, unspectacular core but high on-court IQ, are NBA basketball for grown-ups, the Spartans are the college equivalent. Tuesday night's 74-70 win over Boise State was something of a slog, but Spartans basketball is unmistakable and, if you happen to like how the game is played as much as the end result, always worth watching. Periodically, it is important to take a step back and breathe. Izzo enters his 18th season with six Final Fours, two championship game appearances and a 2000 title, a résumé sometimes easy to forget.

Last week's surprise win over Kansas was a classic Izzo game: a March approach to a November game, turning defense to offense, using timeouts to control the momentum, trusting his game late to his guards, which is what wins championships, steady, understated.

During Michigan State's 2009 Final Four run, the predictable narrative -- no different than the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl title year -- was that with high unemployment and a real estate market leveled by the Great Recession, Michigan State was playing for something more than itself. The economic crisis motivated the Spartans to win for the cause. Sometimes the talking heads just can't help themselves.

Nerlens Noel
A new year, a new lineup for Kentucky, including Nerlens Noel.

If there was any truth to the Michigan-Izzo parallel, it is in style. An Izzo team is virtually always unglamorous even when it is at its most athletic, most accomplished. The virtue of Michigan State does not require outside motivation. Since Gerald Ford was president, Michigan State has had just two coaches: Jud Heathcote and Izzo. Its ethic is stability, the wooden, outdated notions of fundamentals and teamwork.

Izzo has won consistently without the Kentucky-Duke formula of top-two or -three recruiting classes or obvious next-level talent. In basketball especially, the best players win. With only five players on the court playing both offense and defense, superior talent cannot often be overcome. In the past NBA draft, Kentucky, with its high-profile, win-and-dash style, had four players selected in the first round, two of whom (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) went first and second, respectively. Since 2010, Kentucky has sent 11 players to the first round of the NBA draft, including Washington's John Wall, who like Davis was the first pick in the draft. Never mind molding lottery picks; Izzo hasn't even produced a first-rounder since 2006 when Shannon Brown went to Cleveland with the 25th pick and Maurice Ager went three picks later. The last time Michigan State boasted a top-five pick was Jason Richardson in 2001.

Yet there are the Spartans, somewhere in the top 15 or 20 annually to start the year, growing stronger as the year goes on, winding up in the top five or a 1-seed. Izzo's teams suffocate opponents with odes to other long-gone old-school coaches like Temple's John Chaney (the matchup zone) as well as John Wooden (emphasizing superior guard play translates to Final Fours), while being a completely modern, contemporary coach.

The money is changing hands and the conferences are playing musical chairs, but there are patches in the maelstrom where the game remains the same. One place is in East Lansing, where stability not only matters but is an asset.