When the lights are brightest,the weaknesses and shortcomings of a team are forced to emerge from the shadows and face the music. Where the UCONN Huskies were bigger and taller, the Michigan State Spartans were quicker and more aggressive. Where the Huskies had me-first point guard A.J. Price hoisting up 20 shots to go with a lonely single assist, the Spartans had team-first guards Kalin Lucas and Travis Walton combining for 13 feeds and controlling the game with the poise of Army generals patrolling the front lines. Connecticut had a self-absorbed media bully in Jim Calhoun...MSU had Tom Izzo, a coach that has flawlessly led his team through this unforgiving maze that is the NCAA tournament. On Saturday night, it all fell into place on college basketball's greatest stage.
This Michigan State team is blessed with the kind of depth that a Tom Izzo coached team craves. He wants his players to play full bore at all times. Running the floor, forcing turnovers, and crashing the glass with reckless abandon on both ends. This style of play can be semi-effective with a good starting five and a couple reliable subs. But when you talk about a team with 10-11 legitimate contributors all playing IzzoBall the right way, it becomes an oncoming train that is awful hard to stop.
Their depth was on full display on Saturday. Goran Suton struggled to get into the flow of the game. He looked terribly uncomfortable against UCONN inside stalwarts Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien. Whereas Suton was calmly knocking down 3s and jumpers from all over the court against Kansas and Louisville, he was tentative on offense and picking up cheap fouls against Connecticut. You would think that having your regional MVP missing in action would make it very hard to win a Final Four game. Not the case here. Two freshmen, Draymond Green and Delvon Roe, remained unshaken despite the magnitude of the moment. They stepped up in Suton's absence and provided invaluable frontcourt service that would greatly help to decide the game's outcome.
Green, normally an inside bruiser, had the Ford Field crowd rocking in the 2nd half with his barrage of unexpected 15-footers. When the final horn sounded, Green had tallied 8 points in just 12 minutes of play. And when the game was up for grabs in the 2nd half, Draymond Green's mini-zone run was just what the doctor ordered. Roe's offensive numbers were not sparkling, but it was his yeoman-like work on the boards that helped to neutralize the one major advantage everyone assumed UCONN had at their disposal. He also had one of the more memorable buckets of the game. Tie score, 1st half clock winding down, Roe the freshman found himself on the block being defended by Jeff Adrien, the Huskies' senior power forward with an NBA-ready body. Roe pumped once, got Adrien to bite, and pivoted the opposite way to shoot. Only he decided to pump again, with Adrien now staring at the rim expecting the shot. Finally, on the 3rd time, Roe turned toward the middle for his patent lefty jump hook, and nestled the ball safely through the net. It gave the home-towners a confidence-boosting two point lead heading into the locker room.
And the depth did not stop there. Korie Lucious, the jitterbug freshman guard from Milwaukee, did more with nine minutes of court time than anybody in history. He bagged matching triples late in the 1st half, got fouled attempting another (made all 3 ft's), and finished with 11
quick-hitting points without even cracking the double digit mark in minutes. Raymar Morgan, long considered an enigma on this MSU team, attempted to silence all of his critics nationwide by playing perhaps the best game of his career. Nobody expected this Morgan, and it showed. With each successive basket that he made on Saturday, there was increasing surprise in announcer Jim Nantz's voice. If Raymar would have miraculously gotten to the 30-point mark (ended with 18), Nantz's whole body would have went into complete and immediate shock.
And finally, Kalin Lucas. It has become tradition that when a Michigan State basketball team wins a National Championship, they do it with a special point guard handling the ball. In '79, it was Magic. In 2000, it was Mateen. And now, it is Kalin Lucas. The Big Ten Player of the Year was on from the opening tip. He knocked down 3s. He ran the pick-and-roll to get good looks for Morgan, Green, and others. And then he had his signature Final Four moment. Tie game in the 2nd half, Lucas was streaking upcourt, ball in tow, with cat-quick UCONN guards Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie back to defend. Lucas did the only thing that made sense in that moment: he channeled one of the best point guards in basketball history, Isiah Lord Thomas. As Lucas sped inside of the key, he dropped one of the sharpest, most convincing, fake-crossover dribbles you will ever see. Walker's whole body practically turned to defend where it looked like Lucas would be headed. When it was clear Lucas was staying to the right, Walker could only helplessly swipe at the air, while Austrie just watched like a spectator, almost in awe of what he was witnessing. Lucas cradled the ball like a tailback, rose up, and finished with a flair. The Spartans now a had a lead. A lead they would never relinquish.
Forty minutes to go. And it does not get any easier. Waiting in the opposite corner are the North Carolina Tar Heels. Much like in 2005, when the Spartans fell to them in the semi-finals, the Heels are again stocked with NBA talent. That '05 team had a bullish big man in Sean May, a quicksilver point guard in Raymond Felton, and a deadly swingman in Rashad McCants. This year's version, similarly, has Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, and Wayne Ellington. All three will be playing 82-game schedules in the near future. They have yet to be challenged in this tournament. These two teams met earlier this season in this very building, and it ended with a 35-point Carolina advantage. Most likely, if the squads suited up ten times, the favorite would emerge victorious in nine of them. But we cannot forget Rick Moranis's legendary Danny O'Shea character from Little Giants and his unforgettable locker room speech before the 2nd half against the heavily favored Cowboys.
Danny O'Shea: Well, wait a second, guys. Who said you had to be good to play football? You play football because you want to. You play football because it's fun. You play football so you could pretend you're Joe Montana throwing a touchdown pass, or Emmitt Smith going for a long run. And even if those Cowboys are better than you guys, even if they beat you 99 times out of 100, that still leaves...
Tad: One time.
Rudy Zolteck: One time.
Junior Floyd: Yeah... one time!
Monday night, the Spartans will have the chance to make this game their "one time." The crowd will be on their side. The unyielding depth is becoming more of a factor with each subsequent game. Tom Izzo has the same look in his eye that he had nine years ago, the last time his Spartans cut the nets down. The team on the other side, North Carolina, poses a tremendous challenge. One that the Spartans could not remotely contain when they met in December. Will things change tonight? Yes. Michigan State does not need to dominate the Tar Heels for the next week. They don't even need to see them the next day. It just takes one night of being better than the guy lined up across from you. And if Rick Moranis was able to parlay this brand of motivation into one of the biggest upsets in sports history, then you would have to believe that Tom Izzo would be more than capable of replicating the feat. Tonight, we find out if life can imitate art one more time...
Somebody Lend Me their 'Speed Stick' for the Afternoon
If you missed Sunday's Lumber Liquidators PBA 66th US Open, let me tell you something. You have more of a life than I do. The champion was a big ole hoss of a southpaw named Mike Scroggins, who bowled a sloppy 191 in the title match to oust the top-seeded Norm Duke. The main reason I include this item is not the drama produced in the final game, but instead the amount of sweat that was being generated by Mr. Scroggins during the course of the tournament. Keep in mind, these men are bowling in beautiful, air-conditioned facilities. They bowl two frames at a time, with several minutes of rest in between where they sit on a stool and sip ice-cold water. When they finally do get up to roll the pill, there are maybe 4-5 steps of actual motion before they complete their task.
Yet there was Scroggins on Sunday, sweating so uncontrollably that you could almost picture Shaq and Chauncey catching a glimpse of this guy on the tube in some hotel and thinking, "Now that boy can sweat!" It was Ted Striker from Airplane, times a million. He was toweling himself off early and often, sometimes draping the towel over his entire dome until right before he had to take his turn. And it was not helping a bit. Throw in the fact that Scroggy (not making that up...that's what they called him during the telecast) is totally bald up top causing him to look like an upside-down pear that was left out in the rain, and you have the perfect storm of high-definition television. Long story short, it is now 3 AM and I am still being scared of Mike Scroggins' waterfalling beads of sweat. Yeah, I should have a real peaceful sleep tonight...
3 Stooges Gone Wrong
When I think of short, balding, quick-witted Jewish guys, I must say that the name Benicio Del Toro does not immediately jump to mind. So imagine my surprise when it was announced recently Del Toro would be playing Moe in the new film production of "The Three Stooges." When he played a mentally-challenged Native American in The Pledge, I was not laughing. When he was butchered in the sauna room by a crazed Robert De Niro in The Fan, again no laughter. The guy might be a talented actor, but a gifted comic he is not.
He Came...He Saw...He Quit
Words are just words. They might sound great, they might look great on paper, but only one thing really matters; are the words you speak reflected in your actions? If they are not, they carry no meaning. In turn, your credibility is called into question and your character suffers a severe blow. Meet Allen Iverson...a future Hall-of-Famer. He just quit on his team.
“My goal is to help this team win a championship and I’ve said that from the first day I arrived here in Detroit. I’m going to do whatever it takes to help us achieve our goals as a team regardless if I’m starting or coming off the bench.”
This quote was uttered by Iverson about three weeks ago. He was in the process of missing 16 games with what was described as a "sore back." While many were speculating that Iverson was faking the injury and sitting out as some type of protest to his demotion to the bench, these quotes served as something for Pistons fans to hold onto. Had Iverson turned over a new leaf? Maybe the injury was legit, after all. Fast forward to Iverson's return game exactly one week ago. The Pistons took down the 76ers at the Palace, and the Answer had a nice game off the pine. All seemed to be well following the affair, too.
"With all the things I've done in my career, I knew it was going to be tough for me mentally to do this. But the more I looked at the big picture -- the idea of helping my teammates win games -- the more the idea appealed to me."
Again, the guy was saying all the right things, and seemed to be following through on his claim. If coming off the bench was going to help the team, Iverson was going to do it. Was this Pistons team finally coming together, and with perceived malcontent Allen Iverson leading the way? If only things were that easy. A mere two nights later, the Detroiters rolled into Quicken Loans Arena and got beat by LeBron and Co., as basically everyone else has this season. Not a big deal. A competitive road loss to the best team in the conference. Iverson had another solid game off the bench. But in his post-game interview, the true colors of Iverson could be hidden no longer.
"I can play 18 minutes with my eyes closed and a 100-pound truck on my back. I'm wondering what the rush was to get me back. It's a bad time for me mentally. I'm just trying to get through it without starting a whole bunch of nonsense. I'm looking at the big picture, if I vent my frustrations, then it's on."
We're talking about a guy that had come off the bench for two games and was already starting to make waves. Look at a guy like Manu Ginobili. Since his entrance into the league in 2002, he has been arguably one of the top-20 players in the game. He has helped lead his Spurs to three championships. His ability to shoot the trey, drive to the hole, and defend opposing top scorers makes him one of versatile players in the game. And yet, throughout his career, he has been shuffled in and out of the starting lineup more than anybody else in all of basketball. Lesser players like Brent Barry, Hedo Turkoglu, Roger Mason, and an aging Michael Finley have all started over Manu. But you do not hear a peep. Not a word. He puts his head down, plays as hard as he can, and does everything in his power to help the team's cause. Could Ginobili have publicly complained about his reserve role dozens of times over the years? Sure. A player of his caliber would have every reason in the world to want to be in the starting lineup. But he knows such action would do no nothing but harm to the Spurs as a whole...so he remains quiet.
Following the mini-meltdown in Cleveland, Iverson lollygagged his way to a woeful 1-8 performance as the Pistons got throttled by a poor New Jersey Nets outfit. His body language was miserable throughout the night, and it appeared as if he had no desire to even be on the court for any length of time. It turns out those observations were more accurate than initially believed. The Pistons announced a couple days later that Iverson would be shut down for the remainder of the season and playoffs with what is still comically being referred to as a "back injury." The misleading nature of that news release cannot be overstated. Anyone who watched Iverson play in those three games saw the same amount of speed and quickness that has been there all year. The injury was a sad creation to begin with, and is now simply pathetic. Why not just call it what it really is? A lack of heart or even the slightest bit of unselfishness.
The guy has had a reputation throughout his career as a player with one of the biggest hearts in league history. He was a sub 6-footer who didn't care about taking punishment, so long as he drew the foul and went to the line. An admirable quality, to be sure. But look a little deeper. Those sacrifices were always made with individual accomplishments at stake. More trips to the line=more points=more scoring titles=more personal accolades. Would it have helped his team more to average 22 points and 12 assists instead of 31 and 7. Probably. But that has been never been his way. This year, and more specifically, this latest stretch, provided Allen Iverson the opportunity to finally put his own personal feelings and well-being aside in order to help a fractured team try and regain its lost identity. The opportunity came and went. Iverson chose to quit the team. "Quitting the team" sounds like a phrase normally reserved for Little Leaguers and kids in Pop Warner. Sadly, it is all too appropriate for Iverson, as well.
The Pistons play on. They will make the playoffs, probably as a 7 or 8 seed, and fade to black after the first round. However, as fans, at least we can take some pride in knowing the players we root for now actually enjoy representing this team, in any capacity. Will Bynum, the anti-Iverson, had this to say following his record-setting 26-point 4th quarter Sunday night en route to a win.
"We definitely needed that game. It (the record) doesn't matter to me. I could have sat on the bench and scored two points and I still would have been up cheering, trying to get this win. If we got the win, I'd be satisfied no matter what happened."
Team success over personal accomplishments?? Has he gone mad? Will Bynum might be a basketball vagabond with no real NBA credentials to speak of, but the man has his head on straight. Iverson has the personal accomplishments to hang his hat on, but he is light years away from having Bynum's winning spirit. Manu Ginobili has come off the bench 238 times in his career, gaining well-deserved respect from peers for his selfless ways. Iverson spent three games as the 6th man, threw a fit, and walked out on his team. All said and done, Allen Iverson will have spent just 54 games in a Pistons uniform. And my only regret is that it wasn't less.
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