Michigan State's goal from the first day of practice was to play in the Final Four in its home state.
The Spartans reached that goal this past Sunday by upsetting Louisville, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, to win the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis. They will face Connecticut on Saturday in the national semifinals at Ford Field in Detroit, while North Carolina takes on Villanova in the other semi.
Michigan State has been to the Final Four seven times, including five appearances in Tom Izzo's 13 seasons as coach. However, it is doubtful any Final Four appearance, even the watershed 1979 national championship game in which the Spartans and a freshman named Earvin Johnson beat Indiana State and Larry Bird, has meant more.
The nation's deep recession has hit Michigan as hard as it has any state, with the American automobile industry being propped up by government loans. Unemployment is in double digits in one of the few remaining industrial regions of the United States.
"We've always stated we are a blue-collar team ever since I got here and there's no better blue-collar city than Detroit," Izzo said. "We've got the economy issues in our state and all the things our team has been through this year and [senior guard] Travis Walton not wanting to be the first player to go through four years in the program without getting to the Final Four since I've been the head coach.
"There are a lot of story lines in all that, so it's a little more special than the others to make it this far. Who knows where we can take it from here but it's been a heck of a journey and I'm hoping we still have a couple of games left."
Michigan State came into the season looking like a legitimate Final Four contender but its road to this point has been anything but smooth.
Junior forward Raymar Morgan figured to the Spartans' top player, but got off to an inconsistent start then contracted walking pneumonia and is now playing with a broken nose. He has missed three games this season.
"I still think Ray is going to be one of the top players in this tournament before it's done," Izzo said. "He hasn't played his best basketball yet this season and I think he's primed to do something special."
Senior forward Goran Suton has become Michigan State's breakout star of the NCAA tournament and is 33rd in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (23.9) and 64th in offensive rebounding percentage (13.2). However, he missed six games early in the season due to arthroscopic knee surgery.
Freshman forward Delvon Roe, the Spartans' top recruit, has had his playing time limited all season while recovering from having two knee surgeries last summer.
Yet Michigan State is 30-6 and has won 10 of its last 11 games since getting blown out 72-54 at Purdue on Feb. 17. The lone loss in that span was to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
Michigan State has few players ranked nationally in the Pomeroy statistics. Sophomore guard Kalin Lucas, who was picked as the Big Ten Player of the Year by both the coaches and media, is the in top 200 in the nation in just three categories: 34th in fouls called per 40 minutes (1.6), 103rd in assist rate (29.2) and 173rd in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (5.5).
"I heard an interview with Jay Wright from Villanova the other day," Izzo said. "He said it sounds crazy but he thinks his team is getting better at the end of the year. I laughed because I've been saying that for a while. I thought as this team became healthy that we had a chance to become a pretty good team. In some ways, we're getting better than I thought and I still think we have room to improve. It's too bad we're running out of time but what better time to improve than at the end of the year?"
The Huskies Are Prepared
Michigan State is sure to try to draw Connecticut into the plodding pace of the Big Ten on Saturday. Purdue did the same thing in the semifinals of the West Regional and Connecticut won 72-60 before then beating a much faster Missouri 82-75 in the final.
Should the Huskies advance to the championship game, they will face a fast-paced opponent in either North Carolina or Villanova. Coach Jim Calhoun said his team is ready for both styles.
"We've been fortunate to win a couple of national championships and you cannot win, I don't believe, a national championship without being a multi-distance team," Calhoun said. "I don't think a team can purely press and run. A team like Carolina can run like crazy and half-court defense you, too. They can run great offense off the court and the same for Villanova. They can trap you, press you, spread you out offensively and play a half-court game. Michigan State plays as good a half-court game as anybody in the country now that Morgan is back healthy."
"We think we can go with Stanley Robinson at 6'9" at the four spot and play small or we can certainly go big. You have to be able to play in different ways and try to win it. I don't think a one-dimensional team can win it because if they get stopped then that is the end of the line because you can't readjust."
One player who can help Connecticut play fast is freshman point guard Kemba Walker. He had 23 points, five assists and five rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench in the win over Missouri. It should be a treat to watch him match up against Lucas.
"He's lightning in a bottle, a one-man fast break," Calhoun said. "He's probably the quickest point guard I've ever had and one of the quickest point guards in America. His development has been great. We needed him desperately against Missouri and he came through and was able to break their terrific pressure. Did I expect a freshman to act like a senior? No, but I keep telling him he's one of the best players we have. He is no longer a freshman."
Hansbrough's Final Weekend
North Carolina senior forward Tyler Hansbrough is headed into the final week of one of the greatest careers in college basketball history. He is a four-time All-America and the all-time leading scorer in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Hansbrough decided to come back for his final year with the Tar Heels instead of opting for the NBA draft and has had another great season as he ranks fourth in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.8), 17th in offensive rating (125.8), 51st in free throw rate (67.3), 69th in true shooting percentage (62.2), 94th in turnover rate (12.1) and 178th in offensive rebounding percentage (11.3).
However, North Carolina coach Roy Williams thinks Hansbrough should be remembered for more than his great numbers. Williams believes Hansbrough is a living testament to the virtues of staying in college for all four years.
"I've said all year long from last June until today that every college coach in America should want Tyler to have a great year, so people or agents or runners or somebody won't say, 'well, you better jump out while it's hot,'" Williams said. "You can never tell what's going to happen. The kid chose to come back to college because he loved college basketball and loved college life. He's done very well. The NBA has not folded. He's still a No. 1 NBA draft choice.
"He's a unique young man. That's the best word I can use to describe him. To me, when something is really unique, that means you can't find many of them and I don't think you can find many Tyler Hansbroughs. I've said it before and I'll say it many times, I've been awfully lucky. He is the most focused individual I have ever seen, the most driven to be the best player he can be. He's been an unbelievable joy to work with."
The New Guy
Jay Wright, who has led Villanova to its first Final Four since its monumental upset of Georgetown in the 1985 championship game, is the only one of the four coaches in Detroit who has not won a national title. Wright admits he feels a little out of place among such coaching greats as Calhoun, Williams and Izzo.
"This is definitely like one of those pictures you look at and choose which one doesn't belong here," Wright said. "Jim Calhoun, being in [the Big East], he's one of the first ones to call and congratulate me about going to the tournament. He is the toughest guy in the world to compete against but he is a coach's coach. He respects coaching and has been great to me. I've learned a lot from him by being in the Big East. From my Hofstra days, I used to go to see him in clinics and watch his videos.
"Tom Izzo and Roy Williams, you watch them and you watch success. You try to emulate what they do and try to figure out what makes them different. Those guys are incredibly successful, probably just as humble as they are successful and, most of all, they are probably better guys and people than they are coaches. They always go out of their way to help me whenever I see them. You've got three big-time guys here."
Wright, though, believes he has a big-time player who could be ready to take the Final Four by storm in junior guard Scottie Reynolds.
"You look at Tyler Hansbrough and what he's done with Carolina team since he's been there and that's Scottie Reynolds with us," Wright said. "One of his great characteristics is he never fears failure and doesn't worry about what he looks like. He never worried about looking bad. He's all out and he knows he's always going to be all out."
The Job Market
The coaching carousel is spinning at a izzying rate after Kentucky hired John Calipari away from Memphis, Virginia lured Tony Bennett from Washington State and Alabama hired rising star Anthony Grant from Virginia Commonwealth.
Calipari has recommended to Memphis officials that they hire Texas-El Paso coach Tony Barbee. Barbee was a long-time Calipari assistant and played for him at Massachusetts.
Some Memphis boosters want to make a big splash and hire Rick Pitino away from Louisville or Bruce Pearl from Tennessee. Two more realistic possibilities are Mississippi's Andy Kennedy and Baylor's Scott Drew.
Washington State is reportedly looking at some of the top mid-major coaches in the West, including Portland State's Ken Bone, San Diego's Bill Grier, Saint Mary's Randy Bennett and Long Beach State's Dan Monson.
Meanwhile, Arizona appears ready to hire another Pac-10 coach, Southern California's Tim Floyd, to replace interim coach Russ Pennell. Georgia, meanwhile, is said to be in a retrenching mode in its coaching search after Mike Anderson was enticed to stay at Missouri with a seven-year contract extension.
That Other, Other, Other Final
Old Dominion gained the distinction of being the first CollegeInsider.com Tournament champion as it posted a 66-62 road win over Bradley on Tuesday final. While it might have only registered a blip on the national radar, the Monarchs were happy to come away with a championship to cap a 25-10 season.
"I was really proud with my kids handled this whole thing," Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said. "They had fun with it, had passion and practiced hard throughout the tournament. This was really a fun experience these past few weeks.
Old Dominion beat The Citadel, Belmont and James Madison to reach the final. The Monarchs figure to be one of the favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association next season as they lose only one senior.
Bradley, meanwhile, has the dubious distinction of losing the first CIT a year after losing to Tulsa in the best-of-three championship series of the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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