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College basketball

Ordinary turns special for last surprise team

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Michigan State, it should be said, has no business being here. Not this late in the hour, not this deep in the game.

Before the month began, the Spartans were a step better than ordinary and a shade less than interesting. Now they are 40 minutes from the Final Four. And pushovers everywhere should pay attention.

This is what faith gets you. This is what trust can bring.

The Spartans have survived longer than 19 higher-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament because they never gave up on their season.

Surely, it would have been easy to do. Maybe when their record fell to 14-11. Perhaps when they had trouble settling on a lineup.

Instead, the Spartans persevered. They continued to grow and grow until domed stadiums were the only places they were fit to play.

"The great thing about our program is we're optimistic," senior Aloysius Anagonye said. "I knew we had talent, we just had to find the focus."

Butler may be gone, but Michigan State is the next fairy tale in line.

Don't scoff. The Spartans had three Final Four appearances in a row from 1999-2001, but that didn't make them a favorite for 2003.

This is a team that lost more games than it won in January and February. A team that lost by 30 to Illinois.

Should Michigan State beat Texas today, it will reach the Final Four with 12 losses. Since the tournament field expanded in 1985, only two teams (North Carolina and Wisconsin in 2000) have gotten that far with more losses.

They're Cinderella, all right.

Cinderella with hairy knuckles.

The Spartans play a brutal brand of basketball. No give and all take. They're aggressive on the boards and oppressive on defense.

For an opponent, it can be painful to play against Michigan State. For a fan, it is occasionally painful to watch.

The Spartans do not have a lot of flash. They do not preen for the crowd. They like to run on offense because they lack natural scorers and fastbreaks are the best way to get easy shots.

Texas has T.J. Ford, the nation's best point guard. The Spartans, on the other hand, don't have a point guard. No, seriously. They have several guys in the backcourt who handle the ball, including Chris Hill, but none is considered a quintessential point guard.

"I'm really proud of where this team has come so far," coach Tom Izzo said.

Most players have a problem with being called overachievers. They take it more as an indictment of their talents than a compliment of their will.

These guys should revel in the label. They're not only missing All-America players, they didn't have anyone named first-team All-Big Ten.

One guy averages double figures in scoring. One. It has been 47 years since Michigan State failed to have at least two players scoring in double figures.

Instead, the Spartans have a bunch of guys who appear out of nowhere to be stars for a night and then fade into the background.

"Texas has to worry about who to guard because they don't know who our leading scorer will be," Izzo said. "Neither do we."

Some might say it was possible to look at the Spartans and envision an NCAA Tournament run in their future. Just not their immediate future. Of their top seven scorers, six are freshmen or sophomores.

Youth was not the only issue. There also were the injuries. Not catastrophic, just irritating. This guy misses a few weeks with a dislocated finger, that guy misses a few more with a turned ankle.

It was a young team that had trouble coming together because the players were hardly ever on the court at the same time.

"We had no chemistry, no consistency. We were trying to manufacture a point guard out of nowhere and we had too many injuries to get any kind of rhythm," Izzo said. "We're still not a very smooth team.

"I don't know what kind of team we are yet. But I do know we are a team going to the Elite Eight."

When he gathers his team, Izzo often talks of Michigan State's past glory. He says it is not a matter of trying to emulate the success of other teams, but to point out the way a legacy was forged.

This team, he said, has a chance to create its own legacy. To put its own footprints into the sand.

"He knew the potential of this team and he didn't want it to go to waste," freshman center Paul Davis said. "That's why he would go crazy on us in January. But he'll probably keep being crazy until the end."

For the longest time, it was difficult to distinguish Michigan State from the rest of the college basketball crowd this season.

Now that the field has shrunk, the Spartans are easy to spot.

They're the ones who don't belong.

All it took was faith.

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