Spartans Embrace Role As NCAA Tournament Favorite
Expectations are high as Michigan State prepares for its NCAA second-round game against Delaware Thursday in Spokane, Wash.
March 19, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
SPOKANE, Wash. - It makes perfect sense for President Barack Obama to attach his name to Michigan State's soaring approval ratings.
However, how the sudden favorability surge, tipped off by the fawning television analysts on Selection Sunday, could affect the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament warranted discussion in a recent team meeting.
Aside from the obvious concern about severe whiplash - given the abrupt change in attitude from when MSU was in the midst of losing seven of its final 12 regular-season games to being picked this week to win the National Championship by the commander in chief - coach Tom Izzo wanted to make sure his players' feet were still planted firmly anchored.
But as senior point guard Keith Appling pointed out during Wednesday's press conference previewing No. 4 seed Michigan State's NCAA opener and first game against Delaware, the repeated direction changes in January, February and early March have the Spartans right back to where they started.
So, what's the big deal?
"I think it's great that people have such high expectations for us as a team," Appling said. "But, heading into the season we had goals that we wanted to accomplish and winning a National Championship is one of them. So, we're just trying to stay focused with the task at hand and accomplish one of our team goals."
The pressure on MSU started when it was picked No. 2 in the preseason polls and went up from there. After upending top-ranked Kentucky on Nov. 12, the Spartans were ranked No. 1 for a school-record three weeks.
A lackluster home loss against North Carolina knocked Michigan State off the top perch and the spate of well-publicized injuries all but prevented the possibility of a return, but at least the Spartans were never caught up in the grind of trying to be perfect.
The stress of living up to self- and outside-imposed presumptions gave way to a race against the clock to get healthy, which the Spartans appear to be winning.
"We had high expectations at the beginning of the year," said sophomore guard Gary Harris. "We hit a little rough patch there at the end, but we stuck together as a team, held each other accountable and we knew we could count on each other and we would work our way out of it. And we showed what we could do in the Big Ten Tournament. Now, we just got to keep it going here in this tournament."
Rather than shrink under presidential scrutiny, the Spartans are feeding off the high-powered endorsement. While Appling and Harris didn't know about Obama's bracket until Izzo filled them in, junior swingman Branden Dawson was in the loop almost from the start.
"Obviously my TV stays on ESPN," Dawson said. "I'm always watching the games and I'm always watching basketball, so when I saw that, it was just bizarre that Barack Obama picked us and he was talking about Keith, and the injuries, and us getting back and just playing together as a team.
"So, I think it was great."
Now, if only Obama could issue an executive order calling for nine straight Spartan wins.
"I'm trying to get ahold of the President right now and see if he has any pull with the officials, to be honest with you, since he picked us that high," Izzo joked.
The cachet of being listed on the top spot on the White House white board can't be denied, and Izzo and Obama have shared history before during the Carrier Classic on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson to start the 2011-12 season.
It's the price elite programs pay for being elite.
"You know what? I like it," Izzo said. "I look at some of the programs and what they have done with consistency. Duke and Kansas, what have they done to stay so consistent for so many years? Carolina, you know. And, they have had to deal with pressure and they have had to handle it. I think that's part of our growing process, we have to learn how to handle that.
"The problem is, two weeks ago, around our place, people were sticking a fork in us. And then two weeks later..., but isn't that the way the world is now? What did you do for me today? It's so much more instant gratification and I told our players, this will be a good learning curve for them to figure out how to deal with the things they're going to have to deal with their whole life. I think it's a privilege, I really do."
Whether it's a curse or a blessing will potentially play out over the next three weeks, beginning with the Blue Hens in Spokane Arena. Last year, Obama predicted Indiana would beat Louisville in the National Championship Game - coming from Illinois his Big Ten bias is showing -- but the Hoosiers lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals did go on to beat Michigan for the NCAA title, however.
"I hope we can live up to it," Izzo said. "I did have a meeting about it. I was a little worried on how do your kids handle getting bashed on the Internet and on the social media two weeks ago and then some of the top people in sports, and then the No. 1 guy in the world - in the United States - is picking you.
"I said, Man that is awesome. And I think that that's what we're going to do."
At the same time, Izzo will do his best to keep the Spartans humble by playing a number-association game with them.
"We're going to embrace it and just see if we can do our job without getting too full of ourselves, because we are a four seed," he said. "We have lost eight games. We have been down in the bottom before and we have been up on top before. Early in the year we were a lot of people's picks especially after we beat Kentucky. So, that's the way I've tried to handle it."
The players should know better than anyone how quickly something can be taken away thanks to their drop from No. 1 to No. 22 before climbing back up to 11th after winning the Big Ten Tournament. And, no team in the NCAA Tournament field may be better equipped to play through on-court adversity, such as foul trouble, as the Spartans.
It's nothing they haven't already dealt with successfully and everybody knows about presidents and campaign promises.
"That's an honor for him to say that," Harris said. "(But) it's not going to be handed to us. We've got to go out there and prove it."
And Delaware, the alma mater of Vice President Joe Biden, will also have something to say about it.
"I think that through NCAA rules, we were allowed to participate in the Warren Buffett Billion Dollar Bracket," said Blue Hens coach Monte Ross. "Shoot, I think some of (our players) picked Michigan State.
"(But) I just told the guys, I said, Shoot, if we are able to go and play the way that I expect us to play, I'll probably get a call from Warren Buffett because he'll be the happiest person in the world because we'll break up everybody's bracket, so there will be no billion dollars to pay out. So, we'll see how it goes."