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Michigan State sticks out in the Final Four

user: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Danals
Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow night, March Madness resumes – even though it’s April.

Why?  There is too much madness for March alone.

And it’s going to get madder.  Of the teams who made it to the Final Four, three of them were the top seeds in their regions.   

There’s Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten regular season title and conference tournament en route to a sterling 35-3 record. 

There’s Duke, led by the legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski.  The Blue Devils won the Coaches versus Cancer Classic, the State Farm Champions Classic, and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. 

And then there’s Kentucky, which won the Cawood Ledford Classic, the Champions Classic, and the CBS Sports Classic – which makes us wonder, if two teams get together to play a game, is it automatically a Classic?  Apparently so.

The Wildcats also won their conference’s regular season title and tournament– and, well, they’ve won every game they’ve played, all 38 of them. They are trying to become the first team to go undefeated since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers did it – way back in 1976.

And then there’s Michigan State.  The Spartans lost to Kansas, Notre Dame, and Duke – all great teams.  They lost to Big Ten rivals Maryland and Wisconsin, twice each.  Okay.  But they also lost to three mediocre Big Ten teams and – gasp – Texas Southern.  The Spartans have lost 11 games – four more than the rest of the Final Four teams combined. 

They lost the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the Champions Classic and the Orlando Classic -- which is about as un-classic as you can get, but it’s still better to win them. 

The Spartans also lack star power.  Three of the nation’s four best players play for the other Final Four teams.  Michigan State’s best player, Branden Dawson, wasn’t a finalist. He wasn’t a first-team all-American.  Or second team.  He’s on the All-Big Ten squad – Second team. 

"The program is bigger than the players, it's bigger than the coaches. You want to build a program that will last." - Tom Izzo

  You might recall the old Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others.  One of these things just isn’t the same.” And then they’d show you an apple, an orange, a banana – and a heroin addict.  And you’d have to figure out which one doesn’t belong.  

Well, in this Final Four, it’s easy: The Spartans.  But there they are. 

So, how did they get there?

Through unusual team chemistry, and a great coach.

I first met Tom Izzo in 1997.  He offered me a half hour and we talked for three. He’s that kind of guy.  But people forget, he wasn’t very popular then.  He was about to finish his first two seasons in the bottom half of the Big Ten.  Fans didn’t know if he had what it took – but he did.

Earlier that year, he had benched two star players because they’d missed a class.  He didn’t flinch.  He said, "I almost want those guys to be a little embarrassed.  They'll learn.”  They did – and graduated on time, just like 90-percent of all of Izzo’s players.

He explained: “The program is bigger than the players, it's bigger than the coaches.  You want to build a program that will last.”

18 years, 11 Big Ten titles and 7 Final Fours later, and we can comfortably say, Tom Izzo has built his program to last.

Sure, once again, the Spartans will be underdogs, so feel free to bet against them.  They seem to like it that way.   

John U. Bacon is the author of three New York Times bestsellers.  His next book, “Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” comes out this fall.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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