Monday, March 30, 2015

A Spartan existence

You know who you're rooting for now, if you have a morsel of soul in your body. This photo here is only a small giveaway.

It was taken in the aftermath of Michigan State's 76-70 overtime win over Louisville in the East Regional title game Sunday, a victory that sent the 11-loss, 7-seed Spartans to the Final Four. The players are crowded around head coach Tom Izzo, wearing glow-in-the-dark smiles and hats that proclaim them regional champs. One of them -- forward Matt Costello -- is reaching past guard Travis Trice to put a large paw on Izzo's head, ruffling Coach's thinning hair as if he were some little tyke.

Which fits, because Izzo's wearing a little tyke's Christmas-morning expression: Eyes squeezed shut, giggly grin, nothing put pure joy rolling off him in waves.

How do you not root for that?

How do you not root for a coach so unencumbered by the rigid top-down autocracy of his profession that his players feel familiar enough with him to ruffle his hair? Who dresses up as various pop culture figures (Ironman one year, "Gladiator" another) every year for the Spartans' Midnight Madness?  Who is the undisputed Wizard of March, time after time getting his struggling kids to put it together in time for Da Tournament?

Go back a month, two months ago, when the Spartans were losing at home to Texas Southern. Or losing at home to Illiniois. Or losing at home to Minnesota, and at Nebraska. Did anyone, anywhere, see them as a Final Four team then?

But now Costello and Trice and Branden Dawson and the best name in college basketball -- Lourawls Nairn Jr. -- are going back to a place Izzo has taken his teams seven times. And thank God for it, because without them, the Final Four is little more than a chalkfest: Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin, three 1-seed heavyweights who were fully expected to be where they are, and therefore not at all interesting save for the fact that Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes, the MVP of the postgame presser, has emerged as the most appealing kid in the tournament.

 Michigan State at least saves the last weekend of March Madness from not being very Mad at all, and so God bless it. The Spartans probably can't beat Duke, and Wisky probably can't beat Kentucky. But for awhile, at least, they'll inject a little fun into what's likely to wind up a numbingly predictable showdown between the usual clash of dynasties -- mirror images in fact as well as essence this time, because their Nike-designed uniforms are virtually identical.

I'll take the guy with the well-ruffled hair instead. Every time.


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