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With an NCAA Tournament win over top seed Louisville, the Michigan State Spartans show toughness

INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps the odds are against you. Perhaps people at work are counting you out.

Man, does Tom Izzo have a basketball team for you.

Perhaps the other guys look slicker, sharper. Perhaps you are counting on hard work to overcome your disadvantages.

Oh, are the Michigan State Spartans your kind of team or what?

They bump and they grind, and before the day is done, they can wear an opponent into the dust. They sweat and they sprint, and before the game is over, they can take the pretty right out of the other team.

They are the Spartans, and in the toughest time of year, they are tough enough to still be standing.

Michigan State, a blue-collar basketball team if there ever was one, took the sizzle right out of a talented Louisville team Sunday afternoon. It fought for every rebound, and it contested every shot, and by the end, it grunted its way right into the Final Four.

"Good players play," point guard Kalin Lucas said. "But tough players win."

As long as Izzo has been at Michigan State, this has been his mantra. The rest of the world might get hung up on highlights of dunks and jump shots, but Izzo has always insisted on a more physical, more intimidating style of play. Hey, this isn't H-O-R-S-E. If you want to play the Spartans, you bring a lunch.

Did you see the Cardinals run past Arizona on Friday night? And then did you see them dry up against the Spartans? It was hard to believe it was the same team.

You know how good Louisville was against Arizona? It was Phi Slama Jama good. It was UNLV good. It was Georgetown good. And if this game had been played in the finals, instead of the Elite Eight, it would go down with them as one of the great upsets of college basketball. (If you forget, Houston's Phi Slamas lost to North Carolina State, and UNLV lost to Duke, and Georgetown lost to Villanova. This stuff about falling in love with great offensive firepower is nothing new.)

Even as a quarterfinal, however, this was enough to cement Izzo's legacy as one of the great coaches in the country. Yes, he has won a title, and yes, his teams have reached five Final Fours in 11 seasons. But never have the Spartans won so convincingly in a game so many were convinced they would be overwhelmed.

"I must admit, we've been fighting all year for some credibility," Izzo said. "I don't know if this does it or not, but it was definitely a big start."

For Michigan State fans, of course, it was also a reason to start worrying. There are big money programs out there — Kentucky and Arizona — that hunger for a coach such as Izzo, 54. Even Magic Johnson, Michigan State's most famous alum, was fretting Sunday.

"You always worry about the money they are offering," Johnson said. "Every Michigan State fan has to be worried. This is serious business. If I were him, with the talent he has coming back, I would stay. But that's just me being selfish."

Why wouldn't another team be interested in Izzo, an affable, open guy who isn't eaten up with his own success?

For instance, Izzo stayed up late Saturday watching films of Louisville, and he woke up Sunday ready to tweak the game plan. He's the guy who helped prepare his team for the game by practicing his five offensive players against seven defenders.

On the other hand, Izzo has built something special at Michigan State. In the final 30 seconds of the game, when he glanced back at wife Lupe and his children and his parents, he felt it.

"When I took this job and dreamed about where I could take the program, where we could take it, it's these kinds of things," Izzo said. "Winning games is not as exciting for me anymore. It's nice to win games, but I'm not breaking anyone's records. The guys with 800, 900 can rest assured. I ain't coming after them.

"At the same time, I enjoy playing for championships. I enjoy playing in late March."

Back in Michigan, people enjoy watching. After all, there is something of an everyman quality in the hard-working way the Spartans play. Perhaps that is their allure.

"Let's face it, every state's been hit this year," Izzo said. "But ours has been hit maybe as hard as anybody's. I'm just hoping we're a silver lining in what's been a little bit of a cloudy year for us. I'm hoping we're the sunshine. I'm hoping we're something to embrace.

"I want everybody in East Lansing to feel good about us. I want people around the country to say, 'You know what, that team played hard. They didn't talk it, they walked it.' "

For one more weekend, the Spartans walk on. Next, they play a talented UConn team.

At this point, will anyone say they don't have a chance?

With an NCAA Tournament win over top seed Louisville, the Michigan State Spartans show toughness 03/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2009 7:29am]
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