DETROIT (AP)—Only one team can win it all. Whoever does will say it was meant to be.
For the North Carolina players who skipped turning pro after last season, a championship was the only realistic goal. For the Michigan State players who are playing for more than just themselves in an economically battered state, this is starting to feel like destiny.
They meet Monday in the NCAA final to write the closing chapter.
“We’re not carrying them on our shoulders like we’re trying to save the world,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of the Michigan State fans. “We’re carrying them on our shoulders because we care, and it’s our state.”
The Spartans (31-6) know a win in the NCAA title game on a court 90 miles from their campus won’t fix Michigan’s economic freefall, won’t put anybody back to work. But there will be 72,000 people in Ford Field, and most will be rooting for them.
And winning, as they say, can be contagious.
Michigan ranks 51st out of 50 states (and District of Columbia) in the latest unemployment figures. Detroit is the hub of an auto industry on life support, a civic symbol of an economic system that has come off the tracks.
That’s the backdrop for a game in which Michigan State finds itself a 7 1/2 -point underdog against a Carolina team that has “national champs” practically embroidered into its uniforms.
Remember, this is the team that was picked to win it all—and maybe go undefeated—after Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all decided to return after a bad loss to Kansas at last year’s Final Four.
Undefeated was never on coach Roy Williams’ list of goals. Winning a championship, though? Always.
“If you thought it was easy, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Williams said. “It’s college basketball. There hasn’t been an undefeated team since ’76, and there have been some really, really good teams. I think this year there were eight or 10 teams or 12, I haven’t studied it, that could be playing Monday night.”
But it will be North Carolina (33-4), the preseason No. 1 and top seed in the South Regional, against Michigan State, a less-hyped and more overlooked No. 2 seed out of the Midwest.
Though Izzo won’t sell his team short—“you don’t get this far on grit,” he said—he also knows the deal. This is a rematch of a game North Carolina won 98-63 on Dec. 3 in the same building. Anyone who turned the channel, or turned the page, on that one gets a pass. Izzo certainly has.
Michigan State was exhausted (fourth game in seven nights), injured (Goran Suton was out and Delvon Roe was hurting) and not playing near its current level back then, though the coach figures if the Spartans had been in better shape, they still would have lost by 20.
“If we play good and they play good, we’re losing. That’s the way I look at it,” Izzo said. “I mean, I don’t look at that in the negative. They are the best team in the country and have earned that ranking probably over the last year and a half.”
And, as both coaches acknowledge, the Spartans have a knack for taking opponents out of their ‘A’ game. See Michigan State’s 82-73 win over Connecticut on Saturday.
“I mean, they’re not exactly Charlie’s Donut Team,” Williams said.
Williams figures if North Carolina plays poorly in the rematch, it won’t be because of the crowd.
This is a team that loves playing in hostile environments and succeeds at it, too.
The Tar Heels have gone 67-14 away from home in the four years since Hansbrough and the seniors arrived in 2005, the season after Carolina’s last championship. Hansbrough has never lost to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He’s 5-2 in other road games in the state of North Carolina, 3-0 in Maui, 6-0 in Florida and, yes, 1-0 at Ford Field.
“I’ve tried to forget that whole week,” Izzo said. “In fact, if you ask me, 2008 never happened. I’m trying to move ahead to 2009.”
Led by Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten player of the year, Travis Walton, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, and steadily improving Raymar Morgan (18 points, nine rebounds in the win over Connecticut on Saturday), the Spartans are trying to close out 2009 with a flourish.
The game comes 30 years after Magic Johnson led MSU to its first championship in that historic meeting against Indiana State and Larry Bird. Like North Carolina, Michigan State is also going for its second title of the 2000s.
Mateen Cleaves led the 2000 title team. Though Izzo has been back to the Final Four three times since—for a total of five in 11 years—the Spartans haven’t won another championship.
Getting this group a title is the real mission that concerns the coach.
“I mean, the state, this city, is very important to me,” he said. “But the cause right now is for the Michigan State players to win a championship, and hopefully the repercussions from that will help a lot of people. It’s a feel-good for a lot of people.”
Williams, meanwhile, said he hasn’t had time to discuss the country’s economic situation since the Tar Heels beat Villanova 83-69 late Saturday night. It’s simply not part of the scouting report.
“I do realize they have a cause. Well, we also have a cause, too,” he said. “We want to win a national championship, period, the end. And if you would tell me that if Michigan State wins, it’s gonna satisfy the nation’s economy, then I’d say, ‘Hell, let’s stay poor for a little while longer.”’