It was, naturally, inevitable that the championship game between UNC and Michigan State would be boiled down to Blue Blood vs. Blue Collar. As is the case with most generalizations, there's some truth in it but it's not entirely fair.
UNC has, for decades, been said to "select rather than recruit,"which is also not entirely true but has a kernel of truth, anyway.
But when Tom Izzo looks down UNC's roster, he's bound to appreciate Tyler Hansbrough immensely. Hansbrough, whose father is a surgeon if we recall correctly, is the epitome of a blue collar player. The NBA is said to be skeptical about him, but he'll outrun someone several times a game, and there's always room for a guy like that. He'll jack up practice, too.
In general, though, there is some truth to the characterization. Izzo, a
brilliant coach, complains on a regular basis that Michigan State is not seen as an "elite" program. All they do is win. All they do is to play harder on defense, to consistently work harder on the boards, and to, on a very regular basis, outplay people.
It's not a bad profile. But is it enough?
The 35 point loss in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge will throw a lot of people, but it's important to remember that not only was it an early-season loss, but that both teams are quite different now. Michigan State also lost, and badly, to Maryland, but does anyone think that will happen again? Neither will a 35 point loss.
And yet on some level, they have to feel like Rocky Balboa climbing into the ring with Apollo Creed. There are some important differences, though.
Rocky didn't know what to expect when he first climbed in, other than a big whipping. Michigan State has, presumably, processed that loss and benefited from it.
More to the point, as John Feinstein underscores, they are going into Monday night's game with an entire city's hopes.
As everyone knows by now, the auto industry is in serious trouble, and
Detroit is the heart of that industry. Most of Izzo's recruits are from
the area, and they have a deep knowledge of the industry and the whole
situation. And, unlike a lot of people, they're in a position to strike a blow.
There's no question, though, that UNC is formidable and can't be overlooked or lightly regarded. Just check the tone of the Durham and Raleigh papers: the Durham paper practically sneers at Michigan State. It's almost like Dewey over Truman.
A quick digression: in 1991, vendors had already started selling UNLV
back-to-back t-shirts. After the Duke game, they were marked down to $5.00. We should have bought a few.
Anyway, back to the game: basketball is a funny sport. You can occasionally see an upset in football, but usually the stronger team wins. In baseball, you have to win multiple games to beat an opponent, and things
Basketball is a unique game. It's very fast and fluid, compared to
almost any other sport, and with only five players on the court at a time,
teamwork is absolutely essential and is indeed the heart of the game.
That's why when you see a George Mason knock off UConn, or an N.C. State
miracle win over Houston, or Villanova over Georgetown - well, that's really
hard to imagine in other sports, at least in the same way.
Michigan State is clearly an underdog, but all great basketball upsets begin
with intensity, focus and belief, and a total commitment to teamwork and
We're not even sure Izzo is selling an upset - he might be pitching his own
team as the favorite - but if he is, he can point to Villanova's win, where they
knocked off a vastly superior Georgetown team by, basically, not making
mistakes, which includes missing many shots.
They'll have to do a lot, but people are understanding now that this is a
resilient and tough-minded team. The problem is that UNC is also, and they
have more raw talent. If the Spartans win, they'll win on heart and
passion and, to repeat, teamwork at a sublime level.