DETROIT – The bracket says North Carolina versus Michigan State.
At times, though, the Tar Heels may feel like they’re going up against something more than just another basketball team.
From the coach on down, the Spartans (31-6) know a win in the NCAA title game on a court 90 miles from their campus won’t fix the state’s economic freefall, won’t put anybody back to work. But there will be 72,000 people at Ford Field, site of the Final Four, tonight. Most will be rooting for Michigan State.
And winning, as they say, can be contagious.
“When you go through hard times, you pray for something to get you out,” Spartans guard Travis Walton said. “I’m sure they didn’t pray for Michigan State to get to the Final Four or the national championship game, but they probably have been praying to have things to take their mind off of it.”
Michigan ranks 51st out of the 50 states and District of Columbia in the latest unemployment figures. Detroit is the hub of an auto industry on life support, a civic symbol of an economic system that has come off the tracks.
That’s the backdrop for a game in which Michigan State finds itself a 7 1/2 -point underdog against a North Carolina team that has “national champs” practically inked across its uniforms.
Remember, this is the team that some thought could go undefeated this season when Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all decided to return after a bad loss to Kansas at last year’s Final Four.
Undefeated was never on coach Roy Williams’ list of goals. Winning a championship, though? Always.
“If you thought it was easy, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Williams said. “It’s college basketball. There hasn’t been an undefeated team since ’76, and there have been some really, really good teams. I think this year there were eight or 10 teams or 12, I haven’t studied it, that could be playing Monday night.”
But it will be North Carolina (33-4), the preseason No. 1 and top seed in the South Regional, against Michigan State, a less-hyped and more overlooked No. 2 seed out of the Midwest.
Though Michigan State coach Tom Izzo won’t sell his team short – “you don’t get this far on grit,” he said – he also knows the deal. This is a rematch of a game North Carolina won 98-63 on Dec. 3 in the same building. Anyone who turned the channel, or turned the page, on that one gets a pass. Izzo certainly has.
Michigan State was exhausted (fourth game in seven nights), injured (Goran Suton was out and Delvon Roe was hurting) and not playing near its current level back then, though the coach figures if the Spartans had been in better shape, they still would have lost by 20.
“If we play good and they play good, we’re losing. That’s the way I look at it,” Izzo said. “I mean, I don’t look at that in the negative. They are the best team in the country and have earned that ranking probably over the last year and a half.”
And, as both coaches acknowledge, the Spartans have a knack for taking opponents out of their “A” game. See Michigan State’s 82-73 win over Connecticut on Saturday.
“I mean, they’re not exactly Charlie’s Donut Team,” Williams said.
Williams figures if North Carolina plays poorly in the rematch, it won’t be because of the crowd.
This is a team that loves playing in hostile environments and succeeds at it, too.
The Tar Heels have gone 67-14 away from home in the four years since Hansbrough and the seniors arrived in 2005, the season after Carolina’s last championship. Hansbrough has never lost to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He’s 5-2 in other road games in the state of North Carolina, 3-0 in Maui, 6-0 in Florida and, yes, 1-0 at Ford Field.
“I’ve tried to forget that whole week,” Izzo said. “In fact, if you ask me, 2008 never happened. I’m trying to move ahead to 2009.”
Led by Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten player of the year, Walton, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, and steadily improving Raymar Morgan (18 points, nine rebounds in the win over Connecticut on Saturday), the Spartans are trying to close out 2009 with a flourish.
The game comes 30 years after Magic Johnson led MSU to its first championship in that historic meeting against Indiana State and Larry Bird. Like North Carolina, Michigan State is also going for its second title of the 2000s.
Mateen Cleaves led the 2000 title team. Though Izzo has been back to the Final Four three times since – for a total of five in 11 years – the Spartans haven’t won another championship.
Getting this group a title is the real mission that concerns the coach.
“I mean, the state, this city, is very important to me,” he said. “But the cause right now is for the Michigan State players to win a championship, and hopefully the repercussions from that will help a lot of people. It’s a feel-good for a lot of people.”