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The kind Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford (B.A., `66) was looking for when he left Mississippi in search of a school that resembled a factory floor.

“African-Americans, Hungarian refugees, Chinese students,” Ford recalled all these years later, “It was a great melting pot and I was right in the middle of it.”

True to that spirit, Izzo would recruit Klingons if he was convinced they could play. And work. He’s sent more than a dozen players to the NBA, but not one talented enough to name off the top of your head. He puts them through grueling practices _ in helmets and pads for rebounding drills _ and their early season schedule is usually the most brutal stretch of games any team sees before the tournament. That’s why no one wants a piece of the Spartans this time of year.

“If you lost a player to him in recruiting, you felt like you got outworked,” said Gene Keady, a longtime rival before retiring from Purdue. “If you lost a game to him, you felt like you got outcoached.”

Izzo won it all in 2000 and the Spartans’ six Final Four appearances between 1999-2010 were the most in college basketball. They also lost the 2009 title to North Carolina at cavernous Ford Field in Detroit, overmatched and down to fumes by the end. Going in, Izzo knew his team’s draw wouldn’t amount to more than a few extra tickets sold. But he paraded them around town and out at suburban shopping malls in the days before the game, like some kind of talisman the locals could rally around.

I sat next to him at a dinner two weeks later, honoring the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team from Beijing. The unending procession to his seat made me dizzy. Everyone wanted a picture or a handshake, as if some of that grit would rub off on them. Izzo only managed two bites, but drained three glasses of wine. He leaned over at one point, laughing. “It’s fine. I’ll catch up on the rest soon.”

Sure. Just like when his mentor, Jud Heathcote, handed off the job and said he’d started his book.

“I didn’t know you were writing one,” a friend said.

“I’m not,” Heathcote growled. “I’m hoping to read one.”

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BRACKET-BUSTER

This should do wonders for your confidence: AP college basketball writer Jim O’Connell says one of the best things about picking games in the Sweet 16 is “there are only four you can get wrong each of the next two days.”

Syracuse-Wisconsin comes down to whether you prefer the top-seeded Orangemen’s 2-3 zone defense or No. 4 Wisconsin’s man-to-man, which led the nation this season by allowing only 52.9 points per game.

“First team to 60 wins,” O’Connell said. He likes Syracuse.

If nothing else, the Ohio State-Cincinnati nightcap means one less school from the Buckeye State left. Two of their last three meetings were in NCAA championship games, and the Bearcats won both. Unfortunately, those were in 1961 and 1962. Like those days, that streak is about to become history.

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