- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

DETROIT

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo has tried to forget the debacle of Dec. 3, when North Carolina routed the Spartans by 35 points at Ford Field.

He has not trashed the tape of that game, as he has done with a few of his team’s incriminating efforts captured on celluloid in his 14 seasons. But he will not be showing the Spartans the tape of that game in their multiple minifilm sessions before taking to the Ford Field floor to play the Tar Heels in the national championship game Monday night.

“We know what a daunting task we have before us,” Izzo said Sunday. “If I thought that game was a total fluke, I would use it as motivation. But one-on-one, we’re just not as good as North Carolina. If they play well and we play well, they win. That is not to say we can’t win. We need to play well, and they need to play not so well.”

Not that Izzo believes the Tar Heels are 35 points stronger than the Spartans.

The Spartans were missing center Goran Suton in their early-season meeting with the Tar Heels, were in the “dysfunctional” phase of their development and still recovering from playing three games in four days.

As UNC coach Roy Williams said: “You could tell early in the second half that they just did not have their legs. I’ve coached teams before where we got killed and turned around and beat the team the second time. My team will be confident. But my team knows that they’ll have to battle the state of Michigan.”

The Spartans figure to have the majority of the 72,000-plus fans in attendance on their side, no small advantage.

“I’m not sure we beat Connecticut [in the national semifinals] without the building,” Izzo said.

Izzo and the Spartans have rallied around the cause of Michigan’s troubled economy, being careful not to overstate their importance.

They see their role as a feel-good “distraction and diversion,” as a tiny piece of good news in a region being hit with so much bad news. They do not pretend to think the worries of the unemployed have dissipated because of their stirring run to the national title game. They do think they are providing a momentary reprieve from the glum economic news that grips this part of the U.S.

“Every year there is a story line,” Izzo said. “This just happens to be ours.”

The Spartans are coming off back-to-back victories over two of the tournament’s No. 1 seeds, Louisville and Connecticut, and have shown a certain adaptability. They can push the ball or take the air out of it, depending on the strengths of the opponent.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun sees a special element in the Spartans and favors them over the Tar Heels.

“That is a different team than the one you watch on tape,” he said Saturday night. “They were a different team against Louisville. Special. They were close to special against us. We’re still pretty good. But they were close to special. … Tommy Izzo is probably going to win his second national championship on Monday night.”

That will depend on how well the highly experienced Tar Heels respond to the hostile throng. The Tar Heels are almost grizzled veterans by the one-and-done standards of the elite college basketball players of today, with two seniors and three juniors in the starting lineup.

Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, their three leading players, are a load. Yet opponents cannot focus their defense on them because Danny Green and Deon Thompson also are capable scorers.

The Tar Heels play at breakneck speed and put together scoring spurts that cripple the opposition. Their personnel is without equal, and Lawson is directing the blue-and-white show with efficiency.

They are the better team. The better team, though, does not always win. That is one of the fears before the Tar Heels supporters.

The other is a deep Michigan State team that has reinvented itself and truly believes it has a higher purpose than basketball. The latter may be a conceit.

But it is one that has served the Spartans well.

UNC or MSU?

The cold facts say UNC. The heart says MSU.


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