“Celtics all the way,” Michael Culpo said.
But make no mistake, the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds are a New York team, a melting pot of talent with the city’s street smarts and swagger to back it up.
Michigan State doesn’t scare them.
“We have kids from everywhere,” LIU coach Jim Ferry said Friday. “They fit right in in New York. They respect everybody, but they don’t necessarily fear anybody. That’s the approach of a New York person. They think we’re rough around the edges. We’re not. We’re like everybody else. But the things we experience and our approach to things, we’ve got to have respect for these guys, no question about it.
“But I don’t see these guys backing down from anybody.”
On Friday night, the No. 16 seed Blackbirds (25-8) can make NCAA tournament history if they can play the game of their lives and knock off the top-seeded Spartans (27-7) in the second round of the Midwest Regional.
LIU is a long shot.
But a shot is all the Blackbirds are asking for against the Big Ten’s best.
“It’s going to be a tough matchup,” Culpo said. “We played North Carolina last year, bunch of 7-foot guys. So we’re used to playing against bigger players. We know it’s going to be a tough game. So we’re just hoping to be in the game with 5 minutes left.”
The Spartans have history - a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed - size across the board and Draymond Green, the Big Ten Player of the Year, on their side. It should be more than enough.
Also, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo won’t allow his players to overlook the Blackbirds, the two-time defending Northeast Conference champions. He’s taken six teams to the Final Four and won a national title by keeping his teams in the moment.
In March, Izzo makes the Spartans take small steps - one possession, one half, one game at a time.
“We really have to take this game very seriously,” Green said. “That’s one thing that we’ve been talking to the younger guys about, just make sure everybody’s focused in and understands that this is a serious game and it’s not just going to be a walk through the park.
“We have to come up and take the game.”
LIU certainly won’t be able to spring a surprise attack.
Just as the Blackbirds were about to practice inside Nationwide Arena for the first time, UNC-Asheville was making No. 1 seed Syracuse sweat bullets in an East Regional game in Pittsburgh. The Orange held on, but ripple effects of the near upset made their way to central Ohio.
“Everybody’s talking Asheville and Syracuse,” Ferry said. “That’s not very good for the Blackbirds, because if Michigan State was looking away a little bit that might have woken them up a little bit. But Coach Izzo is one of the best coaches in the game, if not the best coach in the game.
“You can see that program doesn’t look past anybody. They play hard. If they’re playing a high school team they’re going to play hard. We’re going to have to beat them by playing a great basketball game.”
Izzo just might have a great basketball team.
For months he has sensed something special about these Spartans, who opened their season by playing North Carolina on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, and prepared for NCAA play with non-conference games against Duke and at Gonzaga.
Izzo doesn’t think this Michigan State team is as talented as his 2000 national title winner, but the group has a chemistry and camaraderie unlike any he has seen in years.
Last week, as the Spartans were getting ready for a walkthrough the night before playing Ohio State in the Big Ten championship, Izzo looked across a ballroom and saw his players horsing around.
“I told my one assistant, they’re acting like a bunch of 4-year-olds. Isn’t that great?” he said. “And I think that kind of speaks volumes for what this team is. They’re just a bunch of guys that get along, have a tremendous leader, and now we’ve become a better basketball team.”
Izzo doesn’t take anything for granted. Never has. Never will.
As long as his team crashes the boards, runs when it has to and plays typical defense, the Spartans should be able to handle whatever the Blackbirds offer.
It’s attention to detail that has gotten Izzo to 15 straight NCAA tournaments, and it’s what he hopes carries the Spartans to the top in this one.
“I’m just kind of setting my sights on seeing if we can win one more game, one more game, one more game, ” he said. “If we can do that, we can make an incredible season into a magical one.”