Posted on: April 3, 2010 4:05 pm
In almost two hours, one of the greatest televised events of 2010 tips off. I am, of course, talking about Get to the Heart: The Barbara Mandrell Story, airing at 6:00 on CMT. There is also, of course, a little game called Michigan State vs. Butler followed by another matchup called Duke vs. West Virginia. Yes, it's Final Four time in America, that beloved moment every division 1 school in the country wishes it could experience right now.
These are games, by and large, which could go either way. It's almost pointless to truly try to project anything that will happen. But just for kicks, let's do a little prognosticating of our own:
Tom Izzo confounded by Butler. Izzo is one of the most resourceful, quick-thinking coaches in NCAA history, a virtual Napoleon of X's and O's. Will he figure out a Butler team that has shifted thus far to make adjustments to beat some of the best teams in the country? This Spartan team hinges on Izzo's mind for unraveling a team's mysteries -- but if Butler can keep switching things up and disallow Izzo to figure out a game plan, the Bulldogs could leave Michigan State confused and spinning its wheels.
West Virginia may not have the magic they did against Kentucky. Part of Kentucky's loss to Huggins' squad was good old-fashioned out-coaching, to be sure, paired with an unwillingness to concede to the number one seed Wildcats. But from the Big East tournament finals magic to a pack of Mountaineers who simply couldn't miss and a bench that had an almost Angels In the Outfield-esque magic in the Elite eight, if all the pieces aren't there tonight, Duke may well walk away with the game.
There will be a lot of people at Lucas Oil Stadium who have never cared about Butler at all this season until this game. Mark it down. If you think all the Indianapolans (Indianapols? Indianapolians?) filling the stands rabidly for the Bulldogs today have been there all along, you're crazy. The biggest bandwagon in the country is parked six miles off Butler's campus right this second.
There will be more hair product in the Duke locker room tonight than an episode of Tabatha's Salon Takeover. The Blue Devils know that to be a winner, you have to look like a winner. That's why every Faux Hawk and front-spike will be in full effect tonight.
Hope you like Hoosiers, 'cause a huge helping of it is going to be crammed right down your throat. You know why. Don't make me tell the story that every sportswriter in the nation has attached himself to over the past week. Yes, we see all the parallels. Please, shut up.
Bob Huggins will continue to dress like your unemployed uncle. There's something to be said for dressing comfortably. And I'm all for that. But if we keep encouraging Huggins to wear whatever he wants, in the finals he's just going to wear an old Iron Maiden tour shirt and some tighty-whities.
The beauty of this thing is that anything can happen. Especially this year, for some reason. So let's get this party started.
Posted on: April 2, 2010 1:43 pm
Edited on: April 2, 2010 2:08 pm
Tomorrow all eyes will be on Butler as the Bulldogs attempt to be the first true "cinderella" team to ever make the finals of the NCAA Tourney. That's pretty impressive, and you have to hand it to Butler. For several years now they've been creeping around, preparing to make their run; and as the fates would have it, not only are they making their run now, but they're making their run at a time when the championship is perfectly winnable for them.
I agree, it's a great story. How can you not like Butler? It's an extremely likeable program from coaching staff down to the bench players, they've been trying to get over the cusp and into greatness for a few years now, each time punked back down as if they don't belong, and this year they not only offed number two Kansas State, which was no slouch, but also dismissed number one Syracuse. It's no wonder they're the talk of the town.
The problem is, they're playing Michigan State, a team who -- if they hadn't appeared in seven of the last twelve elite eights and six of the last twelve final fours -- would probably qualify to be a cinderella team itself. After all, from not only did the Spartans lose their star player Kalin Lucas in the second round, they also saw injuries to Chris Allen and Delvon Roe. And they have to play Butler practically at home (Butler's campus is a mere six miles from Lucas Oil Stadium).
It's easy to, from afar, call this is a "big guy versus little guy matchup." But the truth is that Michigan State is a bigger underdog, "pull yourselves up by the bootstraps" story in this Tournament than even Butler. After all, Butler is firing on all cylinders, looking solid and fantastic as they took out the aforementioned Syracuse, Kansas State, former belle of the ball Gonzaga and a not-terrible Vanderbilt. Michigan State, on the other hand, has struggled with almost everyone they've played, from New Mexico State to another cinderella team Northern Iowa. Tom Izzo's master strategies have pulled the Spartans out of the fire throughout this tournament, leaving them bruised and hobbled but with as much heart as any team in this tournament.
Mind you, I'm not saying that it's more shocking that a program like Michigan State's is here than Butler's. Michigan State is a perennial tourney team -- and Butler's the new kid, sure. All I'm saying is that tomorrow you're going to hear a lot about Butler. And you're going to hear a lot of people say they're pulling for Butler by insinuating that Michigan State is some sort of juggernaut this season. But the Spartans are far from a steamroller -- they're dusting themselves off and pressing on as much as anyone. Don't let the historical stats fool you -- Michigan State is fueled by energy and heart this year, defying odds and figuring out as they go along just how to pul together enough to get to the next round. I don't know about you, but that sounds like many of the same qualities we look for in a cinderella team. By that rationale, whoever emerges from tomorrow's game should be the rootable team; both have fought tooth and nail to get here and either would be the underdog versus Duke or West Virginia. So root for Butler or don't, either way you're gonna get a team that's earned it in the final game.
Posted on: April 1, 2010 1:16 pm
Edited on: April 1, 2010 4:09 pm
Tom Izzo has called him the "perfect Spartan," a "blue-collar workhorse" and "tough as nails."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber once went off on a rant about him during a post-game press conference, comparing him to Charles Barkley, saying he "loves" him and proclaiming he's "green with envy" that he doesn't have a player like him on his team.
His grandfather called him Day-Day.
Some fans call him "Tragic Johnson."
But his teammates just call him The Dancing Bear.
He's six-foot-six, 235 pound Michigan State forward Draymond Green, and by Monday night you may be calling him one of the 2010 National Champs. Green has stepped up to be an absolutely clutch player, shouting out orders like a general on the floor. Izzo has even compared his leadership to that of Mateen Cleaves.
Don't forget it was Green who famously got the ball to Korie Lucious for Lucious' more-famous shot to beat Maryland. And it was Green who got the ball to Raymar Morgan in the final seconds of the Tennessee game (Morgan's foul shots with 1.8 seconds to go sealed the Vols' fate). In short, Green's the guy to watch out for. He's the heart of this team. He's even been referred to as a "point forward" for the way he's stepped up in injured guard Kalin Lucas' absence.
The sophomore hasn't always been one of Izzo's favorites -- early tales of a freshman Green depict his motormouthing in the locker room frustrated Izzo, who now realizes that quick tongue is worth its weight in gold on the court.
"Every year I've got to have one guy to argue with, and he's my new guy," Izzo has said. "And I love him for it."
If Butler's smart, they won't overlook Green. Because while all eyes are on Morgan and Lucious, Green can make it happen for the Spartans. You can call that whatever you like, but it all amounts to a possible champion in the making.
Posted on: March 31, 2010 2:37 pm
Edited on: March 31, 2010 2:37 pm
As Tom Izzo's crew, once thought to be disabled by guard Kalin Lucas' ruptured tendon, somehow continues to roll along in the NCAA Tournament, it dawns on me that while there are many reviled teams in this country (Kentucky seems particularly oft-hated, as does Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, among others), that it's rare to find a juggernaut of a college basketball team which, by and large, is extremely well-liked. Such would seem to be the odd case of Michigan State. Travel the country and you'll likely rarely hear "Michigan State? I HATE Michigan State." Yet there are reasons to hate them: they're consistently solid performers in regular season play and Big Ten postseason action, and have two NCAA Tourney trophies under their belts. For many sports fans, a good team has infinite hatability; after all, they may beat your team next. But why does Michigan State continue to slip through those cracks? And how has Michigan State emerged this season as one of the pluckiest, loved teams in the Final Four (even if they may be a dark horse)? Let's investigate.
Two words: Izzo, Tom. How can you dislike Tom Izzo? The man dresses like a war-torn Spartan to rile the fans, is loved beyond compare by the student body of Michigan State and can recruit the nose right off your face. But he's also taken a fifth-seeded team with a host of troubles and figured out how to get them to the Final Four. That's impressive. Add in the fact that you will never see a coach as despondent as Izzo after a loss (he's a notorious self-blamer) and the seemingly giddy high he seems to ride after a win, and the classic coach doesn't just seem like a guy you want coaching you on the court but a guy you wouldn't mind hanging out with off-court as well.
Good Kids. You can't not like this Spartan team. After superstar Kalin Lucas lost the rest of his season to a ruptured achilles tendon during an amazing win against Maryland during the second round of the tourney, even the experts thought the season was over. The experts were wrong, thanks to a rally by Lucas' teammates to sally forth without him. Just look at the grin on leader-to-be Korie Lucious' face as he inherits the mantle, witness the infectious elation of Draymond Green or the fistpumping of Raymar Morgan as they work absolutely harder than they've ever had to work before. Izzo is a good recruiter who recruits good kids, and as a result the Spartans are consistently likeable and rootable.
Classy fans. I've known a lot of Michigan State alumni and fans in my day, and I've never had one of them put their team in my face. That's quite impressive. I know, of course, there has to be a segment of over-rabid Spartan fans, but by my own microcosm I've yet to meet a State fan who wanted to convert me or compare accomplishments. Even the Izzone, for all its wildness, is amazingly polite and focused in its madness. Maybe it's that same midwestern sensibility that makes a city like Chicago so much more palatable than a New York, but I just don't have any beef with the Spartans. And if they have any beef with me, they're polite about it.
Has Michigan State garnered enough good karma to take them all the way? Will they continue to fuel themselves on good old-fashioned gumption and ingenuity? Will Izzo, that master commander, be able to continue creating strategy minute to minute until his crew is at the top of the heap? One thing's for sure: Michigan State is in this thing, and they've earned it. Where they go from here is their own decision.
Posted on: March 30, 2010 1:20 pm
Edited on: March 30, 2010 2:47 pm
And then there were four. Four teams from a field of sixty-four (sixty-five counting Winthrop), each having braved the bullets meant for them and emerged a contender for the national championship. Over the past two weeks we've grown to know and follow teams we may have, in some cases, had precious little exposure to before (I'm looking at you, Saint Mary's) or grown more respect toward (nice going, Cornell). But the four that matter now are the Final Four. It's their party from here on out, so let's get to know 'em.
"The Resourceful One"
Michigan State is that friend who saves one-fourth of a meatball sub to eat two hours from now. He's the one who can figure out how to get beer. He's the guy who always has a plan -- and he can get himself out of a squeeze simply by being practical. When things get tough, count on Michigan State to come through just by being smart -- like that time he figured out how to get front row Widespread Panic tickets the day before the show by calling his cousin whose friend was a college radio DJ who knew the band's promoter. He's good people to know and always cool under pressure.
Why Michigan State will win: They'll size up the situation, tweak accordingly, and find a way to get things done.
Why Michigan State won't win: By overthinking things, sometimes the big picture gets lost. Plus, there's that ruptured achilles tendon.
"The Pretty Boy"
Duke's got it all. He's cool. He's charming. He's got great parents. He's been raised well. And he's all the ladies can talk about. Everything seems to go well for him, especially when things look bleak. He's just that kind of guy. His perfectly coiffed hair and dashing good looks make him a favorite of many, though when things aren't going well for him he's quick to complain about it. Good thing, then, that things perpetually seem to go his way.
Why Duke will win: They're arguably the strongest team left, and they haven't even really had a scare yet. They're a tournament team and have a huge shot at the title.
Why Duke won't win: When the cops bust the party, Duke calls dad and then tells on everybody.
"The Quiet Type"
No one ever expects Butler to show up. He always says he's going to, but at the last second goes home instead. Everyone likes Butler, but no one really knows him all that well. He doesn't normally run with this kind of crowd, but fits in well. He keeps a low profile, but get him going and he's the life of the party. He's fun while he's there, but you never know how long he's going to stay, and he's never been to a party this big before. He's either going to flame out with the cool kids or make a lot of new friends.
Why Butler will win: As Butler stays modest and says very little, few realize how much they're capable of accomplishing.
Why Butler won't win: More experienced partiers could drink them under the table.
West Virginia told you it would be here, but you didn't think that slacker could get its act together and get motivated. Now you're eating your words, because West Virginia -- who you really only know in passing because he hangs out in auto shop class all day -- is showing up and he's ready to par-tay. He's a wildchild: funny, unpredictable and probably going to get into a fight before the night's over. Having him at the party makes everyone a little nervous, but he seems alright. For now.
Why West Virginia will win: Things seem to be aligned for them and they're stone cold rollin'.
Why West Virginia won't win: They could go nuts, flame out and lose it. They also won't stop requesting John Denver songs.
Posted on: March 29, 2010 1:38 pm
Edited on: March 30, 2010 12:24 pm
When the NCAA tournament resumes Saturday and coverage continues every waking moment, you're going to see plenty of love shown to the four teams who have overcome poor seeding, easy brackets and point guard injuries from all your "real" media types. What you won't see, though, is any affection thrown toward your "Almost Final Four" who fell just short on Saturday and Sunday. What about at Tennessee where an Elite Eight has never happened or at Kentucky where the Elite Eight might start getting treated like the Final Four after coming heart-breakingly short yet again?
Is it fair that these teams are supposed to be forgotten? Not in a society where participation ribbons will probably replace testing scores one day (not a Derrick Rose joke). So, with that in mind, let's take one last look at the four teams who fell just short of appearing on those corny Final Four banner t-shirts.
What Went Wrong: Tennessee actually didn’t play a bad game. They shot the ball well and held their own on the boards with a very physical Michigan State team. Outside of Scotty Hopspon’s missed free throw-foul combo and the worst half-court shot in NCAA tourney history, Tennessee showed a lot of character in a run to the Elite 8 and a comeback from down 8 points in the second half.
What Really Happened: They tried to mess with The Izzo. And you don’t mess with the Izzo in March.
On the bright side: They made it out of St. Louis without anyone getting arrested, which, according to odds makers at least, is more of an upset than their run to the Elite 8.
Kansas State (West)
What Went Wrong: Kansas State couldn’t hit their free throws and they got out-rebounded by a team that hadn’t out-rebounded a team in the tournament yet. Just like their previous coach, they came in reeking of their last battle with Cincinnati and struggled to keep their legs under them. Kansas State won the battle on Thursday but Xavier won the war on Saturday.
What Really Happened: Furious with how they ousted The Prophet Jimmer Fredette in the second round and the way they’ve glorified a beard that strictly prohibits BYU’s grooming code, Salt Lake City’s BYU alumni group decided to fight back against Kansas State. They turned to former Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings, a BYU grad and SLC resident, who, not surprisingly, is also an alien. Jennings snuck into the Wildcats’ hotel Friday evening and, just like in Space Jam, sucked all the talent out of Frank Martin’s team while they met for their “One Blogging Moment” reading club. Look for another Jennings run of dominance in the near future, this time on Pros vs. Joes.
On the bright side: They get to leave Salt Lake City and return to civilization Manhattan.
What Went Wrong: Everything. In the back of their minds, Kentucky fans had feared all year that their team might not be mature enough to handle the pressure or that they might not be sound enough from the free throw line or the three-point line. In Syracuse on Saturday, the bottom fell out in the worst possible way as they struggled in every aspect. DeMarcus Cousins, a model citizen most of the year, appeared to lose his cool at points and DeAndre Liggins got T’d up for, well, we still don't know. They shot 4-32 from three and hit only 55% from the free throw stripe. It was just a fundamental beating. And, it was just as Kentucky fans dreaded it would be.
What Really Happened: Kentucky’s freshmen all struggled to maintain the proper focus late in Saturday’s game as concerns over the strength of Russian ruble continued to linger with experts. Is it the right time to enter the job market or is this a sign of greater economic issues to come?
On the bright side: Just over 2.6 million Kentuckians already vacated this game from their memories.
What Went Wrong: Another team that really didn’t play a terrible game. They got decent, if not great, contributions from their big three and locked up Kyle Singler, who shot 0-10. But, Nolan Smith abused the Bears for 29 and it seemed like every three ball was falling for the Devils. Even Andre Dawkins came in and knocked down two big ones in the first half. It was the type of game that you have to just move on from with your head held high, knowing that you’re proud of your effort and that you didn’t get punked out after a Jon Scheyer elbow. Oh, wait….
What Really Happened: This game was decided well before Demond became Tweety or Scott started drawing. Coach K has a pact with the devil, which was agreed upon while he played for him at Army, and ensures that hell must freeze over before Duke stops making Final Fours with rosters that just don’t seem Final Four caliber. It appears the forecast is as blazing as ever.
On the bright side: Unless you’re a Duke fan, there really isn’t one. Sorry.
Posted on: March 28, 2010 5:08 pm
Edited on: March 28, 2010 5:09 pm
While you spent the last two hours changing lightbulbs and cleaning out your gutters in preparation for spring because you promised your wife last weekend that you'd do all that stuff this weekend, in St. Louis Bruce Pearl's Volunteers and Tom Izzo's Spartans beat the tar out of each other in a back-and-forth that would end with a 70-69 Michigan State victory and propel them to yet another Final Four. Tied at 69, Tennessee guard J.P. Prince would mar an otherwise stellar, hustling performance by fouling senior forward Raymar Morgan, offering Morgan the point he'd need to send the Spartans to Indianapolis next weekend. Prince had 12 points on the day and teammate Wayne Chism chimed in with another 13. You can't say the Vols weren't competitive. There wasn't even a hunch as to who was going to come out of this one -- it was a dead heat. And it could have gone either way.
The constants we all expected were there. Tennessee's speed and lethal attacks. Michigan State's determination. Tom Izzo's ability to adapt. Bruce Pearl's gallons and gallons of sweat.
The way it did go in the end, however, was the way Michigan State wanted it to go. Once again the team pulled together in Kalin Lucas' absence (these guys are starting to supersede the Kalin Lucas story with their own amazing resilience) to piece together a team effort that saw Durrell Summers with 21, Korie Lucious with 8 and both Morgan and Draymond Green marked down for 13 apiece. Tennessee fought them tooth and nail, but the Spartans earned this one and continued to defy those who said they couldn't perform without Lucas.
So the Volunteers head home to Knoxville after their fiercest battle toward the Final Four in history and the Spartans prepare to take a short road trip south to face Butler in their home town, two teams which -- from a tournament history standpoint -- couldn't be more diverse. But yet, they're both five seeds, and they're both fighting for their lives.
See you in the Final Four, fellas. Get some rest. You're going to need it.
Posted on: March 28, 2010 9:20 am
Edited on: March 28, 2010 9:22 am
If you're in St. Louis today, and it's not because you're attending the annual convention of the Association of Pipefitting Manufacturers -- Midwest Region (APMMWR), I'm just going to assume you're here for the mighty battle for the Final Four slated for this afternoon. Today's Show-Me throwdown pits the underperforming and hobbled Michigan State Spartans against the overperforming and confident Tennessee Volunteers in what could be one of the most even matches we've seen yet in a tournament full of wacky, unpredictable upsets and blowouts. Let's go to the talking points, so you can sound really smart today when you're watching it with that brother-in-law or co-worker you hate. Your welcome, America.
Who wants the ball more? Both Michigan State and Tennessee have turned in nice total rebounding numbers throughout the tourney -- in the last round alone, the Vols pulled down 36 (mostly Chism's and Williams') and the Spartans netted 31 (evenly spread out among the starters). Should be active in the paint today, and whoever's scrapping underneath the basket more is going to give themselves a nice edge.
Lucious is a major target. Sophomore guard Korie Lucious has had to grow up quickly in this tournament since Spartan all-star Kalin Lucas has gone out for the season, and Izzo has to be surprised in the way this kid has stepped up to run the show. Confident and determined, Lucious has thus far been an effective replacement for the injured Lucas, though he's still young and not infallible. If Tennessee can find a way to get to him today, either physically or mentally, they could expose a weakness in the Spartans' armor.
Izzo will have a plan. The veteran tournament coach is a master of a two-day turnaround to figure out a gameplan; that's why the Spartans are the defending tourney runners-up. This is Pearl's and Tennessee's first experience this far in the tournament, so this is uncharted territory for them. You can bet the Michigan State staff will come into this thing with a solid idea of how to beat the Vols. The question is, how quickly can Pearl figure out a plan of his own?
Threes could be a decider. Tennessee has some great guns and speed in Scotty Hopson and JP Prince, but it's worth noting that Michigan State guard Durrell Summers is looking at 59 points in the past three games and is shooting 50% from behind the three-point line in the tournament. If both teams are rebounding and going toe-to-toe evenly in the paint, whoever can sink the longball will be looking pretty.
Don't let Bruce Pearl hug you. He is very sweaty and you might slip and hurt yourself. Kalin Lucas is already out; let's hope Raymar Morgan doesn't fall for the patented Pearl "hug-trap" before the game today.
Should be a solid matchup today, folks. It's the last Big Ten team standing versus the last SEC team standing. Winner evolves its species.