Nov. 11, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Wichita State, Butler (twice), Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason made it to four of the last eight Final Fours more for the experience-level of their players than rosters laden with nationally acclaimed talent.
And each time a mid-major makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, it calls to mind the idea: Imagine what a high-major would do if it kept its top players around for four or five years.
Led by seniors Adreian Payne, who passed up a chance to leave early for the NBA, and former McDonald's All-American Keith Appling, No.2-ranked Michigan State may appease inquiring minds when it plays No. 1 Kentucky and its highly touted freshmen.
The Spartans and Wildcats square off Tuesday night in the third-annual Champions Classic, an event that given the venue, marquee participants and widespread attention has all the trappings of a preseason Final Four, minus a championship game. Fourth-ranked Duke meets No. 5 Kansas in the second game of the uber-header held at Chicago's United Center.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is all-too familiar with the successful mid-major model, having lost to Butler in the 2010 national semifinal and George Mason in the opening round of the '06 tourney. The Patriots, an 11th seed, went on to upset No. 3 North Carolina and top-seeded Connecticut before losing to eventual National Champion Florida in the semis.
With exceptional juniors Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, and preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Gary Harris, a sophomore, also in their lineup, the Spartans are equipped to make major revisions the page they're borrowing from the mid-major playbook.
At the same time, Izzo acknowledged that Kentucky will counter with a major caveat in the form of seven freshmen who earned high school All-America accolades less than a year ago. Though only in his first season, Julius Randle, is the preseason pick to win Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors and is on the Oscar Robertson Trophy watch list with Payne and Harris. An eighth former prep All-American, sophomore Alex Poythress, is the Wildcats' leading returning scorer.
"We do have to understand, and I'm excited about the game and I want to play it," Izzo said, "but there are talented teams, and then there are talented teams. I'm not sure I've ever heard of seven or eight (former high school All-Americans) on the same team.
"That's a whole different experience. But, I think that's what everybody's looking forward to seeing, not only with our game but throughout the year. With the Final Four teams, you are getting some of those mid-majors that have six or seven veterans, but they're going against good teams; they're not going against teams with this much talent."
Although Izzo's program, and what would have been high expectations, has been occasionally disrupted by the early departure of superlative players over the years, he has built a foundation on student-athletes who have had multi-season careers and left MSU with degrees in hand.
Conversely, Kentucky coach John Calipari has unabashedly based whatever success the Wildcats have enjoyed, and will experience in the future, on the best of the best prospects he can attract to Lexington, knowing full well he may only have them for a season before they bolt for the NBA.
For one night in November, it will make for a delicious clash of cultures, and Izzo can't wait to put the players developed in his system up against Calipari's, who are still getting accustomed to wearing "Big Blue" instead of their high school colors.
"There's no question they've got the most talented team in the country, as far as skill and ability, but they are young, and it is early and so we'll have some advantages the other way," Izzo said. "It's going to be fun to see which one pans out and pays off. That's what I'm really looking forward to.
"There's seven first-round draft picks on this (Kentucky) team, and they haven't even played a college game yet. We laughed about it in our meetings. There's probably a ton of NBA teams that don't have seven first-round picks on their team. But, I think one thing that's getting a little bit lost in the shuffle is we have some talent, too. We have some talented experience and I think that's the one advantage we have."
And, it's talent deemed good enough to be Wildcat uniforms. Calipari recruited MSU red-shirt junior guard Russell Byrd and Harris, and he flew in on a helicopter to see Payne work out at his high school.
"I went on an official (visit) there, and (Calipari's) a great guy and a great coach," Payne said. "I had them in my top five, so it shows what kind of guy he is. It's good for us to be able to play a great team. It means a lot. It's one versus two, so there's going to be a lot of hype and lot of emotion.
"It means a lot for college basketball and the two programs. We just got to come out and make sure it's a great game."
Harris is almost an entirely different player than he was a year ago as a starstruck freshman making his debut against Connecticut in Germany. Harris' second game was against Kansas in the Champions Classic in Atlanta. Since then, he's recovered fully from shoulder injuries suffered later in the season and stronger and more self-assured.
"It's going to be fun, just being a part of the whole Champions Classic thing," Harris said. "We came here to play in big games like this. It was a tremendous atmosphere last year, but I expect it to be way better this year because of the names going to be there."
Harris isn't putting too much stock in familiarity with each other, or relative experience, however.
"It's just basketball," He said. "We all know each other. It's just part of the game. We're going to come ready to compete, and they are too. We're all competitors out there playing. Experience will help a little bit but it's about going out there and competing and doing what you have to do to win."
Izzo has visions of the game becoming a highly entertaining, up-tempo affair with neither team, barring foul trouble, in the mood to slow things down. He said he'll have a hard time being displeased, regardless of the outcome.
"I think every team should be ecstatic to play in a game like this at this time," Izzo said. "If we don't play well, we're going to know what our warts are, and what we have to get better at. If they don't play well, they might know what some of theirs are.
"What I hope to do is learn both ways, win or lose. But, there can't be a negative to this, at least for me."