Memphis Getting the Love, Spartans Want the Win!

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The Palace of Auburn Hills

Auburn Hills, MI

When Michigan State takes the court today all you will hear about is the athleticism and up and down style of the Memphis Tigers. So much so that it becomes redundant and frankly easy and lazy to report.  In my opinion, this story is about an entirely different set of ideas. Try this one on for size.

Today’s matchup has a lot less to do with Memphis and a lot more with Michigan State.  In the locker room after practice, I mentioned it to Tom Izzo yesterday.  This is more about MSU than Memphis. He agreed, then went right back to praising Memphis.

MSU is the better team. They have played a lot of different teams, and it is Memphis whose schedule is padded like a training bra. They are the ones who haven’t faced a team like MSU.  Memphis looks pretty.  MSU looks scratched, bruised, bloody and mean.  This is Barbie vs. Leonidas.

Memphis Tiger Tarik Black seems to think Memphis has the answers. “As far as Michigan State goes with their bigs, they have good bigs in Nix and Adreian Payne.  But at the same time I'm -- I consider myself a prominent threat.  So as much as we could talk to them about how their bigs play, they have to worry about us on the other end as well with me and Shaq and D.J. and Ferrakohn.”

As Memphis has somehow avoided the shame that led to the NCAA taking what little glory that they had for past wins, (including over MSU in 2008) they bask in the glow of attention.  MSU plods along.  They aren’t sexy.  They aren’t a team that wows with flash, but they win.  Most importantly, they are battle tested.

Even Memphis head coach Josh Pastner seemed to notice.  He then went on an awkward infomercial about Tom Izzo almost as if to make up for all the attention that the Tigers are getting.  Many heads where turned with his truthful sentiments delivered at an awkward time in the media room.  Out of nowhere Pastner went on a pro Izzo infomercial.

It wasn’t what he said, but it was how he said.  Forcing one of my colleagues to say, “He’s trying to not give Izzo any advantage where he can tell his team they are getting no respect.”

Here is what Pastner said, “We're playing a great Michigan State team. There's no question that Coach Izzo is one of the great coaches in all of sport, doesn't matter if even just basketball. I said it yesterday, he should be in the hall of fame. I mean, he's going to be so we might as well just put him in. There's no reason to wait on it, because it's going to be. So let's just, you know, let's not even wait and get him in, and he's tremendous. Michigan State's a great basketball team. This will be a road game for us. We're excited and ready for the challenge. You know, we're a good team too. You know, we've won 31 games. We got a lot of speed, quickness, and athleticism. And I think Saturday's going to be a high-level game, just a very high level game against two good teams. So we're excited to play.”

He kept going, “We have great respect for Michigan State. You know, they're an elite rebounding team. Elite. Not great, but elite. And everybody knows in the profession Coach Izzo's, you know, his reputation as a rebounding coach. Heck, I've watched five of his championship video products this offseason, and actually, our rebounding has been the best this year based on Coach Izzo's drills.  So if we outrebound him somehow tomorrow, it's a credit to Coach Izzo because I stole all those drills from championship video products in April.”

And going, “Well, Valpo gave up 20 offensive rebounds.  You're not going to be a great team giving up 20 offensive rebounds. I mean, look, it's very simple. This is a players' game.  If we make shots, that's great, and we don't give up offensive rebounds, we probably have a good chance to win.  If they make shots and they get a bunch of offensive rebounds, they got a better chance to win.  I mean, it's really simple… Coach Izzo's already in the hall of fame, so it doesn't matter whether they win or lose.”

And yes, going. “I said yesterday in the press conference that he knows that I'm a filibuster.  So I can go on and on, but I did say that I need to win some more games.  If I'm going to run for senator or congress, I need to win a lot more games.  Coach Izzo could run for governor in the state of Michigan and win today. That's the big difference. And on top of that, he's going to the hall of fame. I mean, he's a legend.  He's one of the great coaches in all of sport. I mean, he's great for our game.  He's been tremendous for coaches. He's a down to earth guy and, you know, so for me it's an honor to coach against him. Like I said, there's no need to even wait.  Why we're waiting to put him in the hall of fame, the guy should already be in. And if the school hasn't given him a lifetime contract, I think they should give him a lifetime contract too.”

Do you get the hint?

Pastner may be young, but he isn’t dumb.  The story line is that a Memphis team that isn’t battle tested, let alone battle strong and is running into a monster.  The Spartans have been here and done that.

How bad was it? I was sitting next to my good buddy Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News when one media member asked Pastner about the Memphis streak against MSU.  I asked Charboneau how no one can remember that according to the NCAA that win never happened and it was vacated for cheating?  Selective memory to them, but I know one person who won’t mention it, but remembers it: Tom Izzo.

Pastner gave an interesting answer.  When asked about the, “Streak” over MSU he said, “Well, I would like to say that I could get credit for that streak, but I think that goes back to John Calipari.  So we have not -- I personally have not coached against Coach Izzo as a head coach.”

He went on, “You know, I coached against him as an assistant when I was at the University of Arizona a couple times, but never as a head coach.  So this streak and that stuff, that goes back with Coach Calipari.

You know, what this means to the city, you know how important this is to the city, the Memphis Tiger basketball.  It's everything.  This city is so passionate. They're so emotionally invested.  It's their team. It's not my team; it's their team, and I'm just happy -- for this win yesterday was for our young men, our student-athletes, but also for the city, for Tiger Nation.  I know how much they wanted to win. So that was important.”

He finished with, “Really, the burning desire inside is for them to be happy, and I know for them to be happy is when you got great student-athletes and also you can win too.  So we wanted to try to do both for them.”

As these two teams enter the court today, one of them will have grabbed a cat by the tail.  Forget the nicknames, because the Memphis Tigers will find out Sparty has been too busy working games to get a haircut.  He won’t be happy and neither is Izzo.

This game IS NOT about what Memphis does.  This is about what Michigan State will do.  This is AAU playground basketball versus the discipline of a future Hall of Fame star coach with a team of hungry soldiers in lock step behind him.

MSU is all business and Memphis is all flash.  That is great when you want to win the press conference.  It works when you want attention.  Not when you want to get to the Final Four.

This time of year the only thing MSU craves are wins.  Memphis is talented and they are athletic.  Unfortunately this game won’t be played on a playground.  This is the NCAA tournament.  This is Izzo time and they have Sparty by a long pony tail and he is looking for a fight.

MSU comes in on a business trip.  They know that Memphis can win.  They will enjoy the tournament when it is over if they make it to Atlanta.

You would think that Tom Izzo and the Spartans would be marching around Auburn Hills, the home of the Pistons, like the invading Miami Heat. That is how Memphis is acting.

As for Izzo and his team?  They are acting like the team from Hickory in the famed movie Hoosiers.  Aw shucks, were just glad to be here.  Izzo is from the U.P., and that may be rural, but they aren’t stupid.  He is ready for a fight.  It is in his eyes.  He wants this fight.  He needs this fight and he is going to get this fight.

Around 2:45 PM today Michigan State and Memphis will tip off.  Memphis is fun to watch.  They will bring flash, but the Spartans have their version of Jimmy Chitwood on the bench and the Spartans are coming into this game looking for a fight.

I have been to national title games.  I have been to Final Fours.  I have been to rivalry matches and sat courtside at so many of the greatest Spartan games.  I don’t remember ever wanting to see a game like this.  Turn on your DVR’s.  Set the old VHS machine.  Hide the women and children and grab your doomsday prepper supplies.  This has all the ingredients of a memorable game…I mean fight.

Memphis is capable of winning this game.  We have seen the Spartans struggle with a player or two going M.I.A.  The advantage is that MSU knows it.  You don't win by arriving, you win by battling. I  am not sold that Memphis is tough enough to beat the Spartans at their game.  That is why this is about MSU.  If they play their game they win.  If they don't the season is over.