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11-11-11 Michigan State vs. North Carolina Aboard U.S.S. Carl Vinson: More Than a Win at Stake for Tom Izzo’s Spartans
What was that? The Michigan State Spartans are opening their season Nov. 11 against the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels? What joy that was to hear for Spartans fans, especially in regards to MSU's futility when tangling with UNC—but we'll get to that later.
Oh, and sprinkle in the fact that it's aboard a United States Navy warship—the nuclear-powered U.S.S. Carl Vinson—in front of President Barack Obama, and we have a real game.
When I first heard the news, some months ago, that MSU coach Tom Izzo's Spartans were getting their season started by playing one of the best teams in the land, it didn't surprise me. However, Izzo, who is known for throwing the Spartans into the mix against elite teams early in the year, really outdid himself with this one.
Whether or not it was his idea specifically—probably on the parts of the UNC and MSU athletic departments—this game aboard a supercarrier certainly takes the cake. And judging by his entrance a few weeks ago to the Spartans' annual Midnight Madness at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, I'd say Izzo is eagerly anticipating the event.
He took the floor of the Breslin in a miniature fighter jet, dressed as either Maverick or Goose, both fictional pilots move the classic film "Top Gun." I couldn't tell which one he was, but if I had throw out a wild guess, I'd say Maverick, just because that's the type of guy I believe Izzo to be.
Well played, Izzo. Well played.
With the Spartans slightly fading out of the national spotlight for their recent, substandard play, this duel with the Tar Heels serves as a vehicle for the national audience—and media—to once again recognize MSU, whether it be for its once-elite status, or simply for the fact that it has a coach that's never been afraid to go for the gusto.
And that's why I like Izzo, and, furthermore, the reason why I religiously follow MSU basketball—never a dull a moment, if you ask me.
Throw history out of the window
Forget the fact that MSU was out-ran, -hustled and -done in the 2009 NCAA National Championship by UNC. It was a quick, however, painful blow, to the psyche of Spartans fans everywhere. But it was shaken off, for the most part. MSU followers moved on and watched their team make it to the Final Four the next season.
Forget the fact that the Spartans haven't bested UNC this decade—and never mind the Final Four loss to eventual-champion UNC in 2005, while you're at it. Nov. 11 presents a chance for MSU to not only rebound from a sub-par 2010-11 campaign, but also do so in front of the Chief of State in arguably one of the most creatively conceived sporting events in history.
Not the same Sparty, but that's OK. Count on grit to get job done against UNC
While the current Spartans may not be as formidable as past groups, there are stars like senior forward Draymond Green who have played with pride and heart—especially against UNC. Let's not forget Green's vocal display during the 2009 NCAA National Championship game—and he was merely a freshman.
Now a veteran, I believe that Green has more than a win on his mind. He's likely thinking of redemption, of course, after giving UNC a good look. A true leader, in my mind, always stays a step ahead of his competitor.
"I know Harrison Barnes likes to go over that right shoulder," Green recently told The Lansing State Journal. "And (Tyler) Zeller's got that funny little (former Spartan) Garrick Sherman hook—I know all that—and he runs the floor like a deer. Kendall Marshall's not the fastest point guard, but he's gonna find you, and Dexter Strickland is just going. (John) Henson, shot blocker, (good) inside, will put up the 3. I know all that stuff."
More than a game for MSU, UNC… but specifically for MSU
The preparation that went into this event—the snazzy digital-camouflage uniforms both teams will wear—makes me feel that this is more than a typical Izzo early-season test for the Spartans. It's a way—win, or lose—for the Spartans to become relevant in the eye of the national fan, or those who knew about MSU basketball, but had simply written it off since the team faltered this past spring. Those around the country aren't as forgiving, or patient, when it comes to MSU basketball. And part of me understands why. A team—which boasted a preseason No. 2 ranking—bowing out in the first round of the tournament after reaching six Final Fours in the past 13 years isn't supposed to stumble with such senior talent like guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers.
I get that point.
But if you're an ardent Spartans fan, you know that the talk of MSU "not being itself" isn't fully true. How many schools can lay claim to the resume Izzo and the Spartans have built? I'll answer that for you: Not many. A year off from the limelight hardly constitutes as a program falling off the map. Remember, Izzo recruits well, manages his team well and to count him or his team out is hardly wise.
My guess is that aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, more than history will be made. Those in non-Big Ten land will once again take notice of a program that should be considered elite. And those national fans of UNC will get a chance to watch arguably country's best take a shot at beating Izzo's Spartans, who like it or not, will be a hot topic in college basketball circles despite their "under-the-radar" billing.
UNC-MSU is always a headliner. Let's hope, for both school's sake, that this game only propels the Spartans and Tar Heels brands further up the ranks of notable programs. But, if you're a follower of MSU basketball, hope that Izzo can coach his young ensemble that's brimming with talent to a win against the big bad Tar Heels.
It's a win-win for MSU. And if the Spartans do notch a win against coach Roy Williams' Tar Heels, I'd expect Izzo to request a fly-by over the carrier's command tower.
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