Michigan Madness

Spartans, Wolverines kept The Palace rockin’ while the Pistons were away

The Palace hosted the Spartans and Wolverines for the NCAA Div. I Men's Basketball Tournament earlier in March.
Pistons photo
You can’t be a basketball fan and follow the game like those of us in the NBA do without following college basketball. The whole thing is hand in glove, starting from high school on into college and then on to the NBA. It’s always something you notice, especially when one of our schools in Michigan produces a big-time player and you notice again when our schools in Michigan have good seasons and you wonder where some of their best players will end up in the NBA.

This year we’ve got Draymond Green from Saginaw High and Michigan State at Golden State and being called by coach Mark Jackson one of the most complete players he’s ever seen as a rookie and a real natural leader, so that’s a compliment to Tom Izzo and the Michigan State program, which has been consistently good for the last 15 years.

But now – and it hasn’t happened all that often that both of our Big Ten schools have been nationally recognized powers at the same time – the other big program in the state, Michigan, is grabbing headlines, as well. They have an excellent team under John Beilein and contended, as the Spartans did, for the Big Ten championship.

In a way, it was sad that the Pistons were on the road, because we didn’t get a chance to see firsthand all the excitement at The Palace, but it’s pretty traditional that if there’s a basketball event like the NCAA tournament at The Palace, the Pistons have to be on the road to clear the schedule. But it was great to see the place rocking and great to see both the Spartans and Wolverines move on with very impressive victories.

I know John Beilein wanted his team to take another step forward this year and they certainly did. What a resounding win they had against Virginia Commonwealth. Their style of play, game plan and talent obviously overwhelmed VCU and probably surprised a few people. Personally, it did not surprise me. I think the Wolverines have a very talented roster and they’ve really learned how to play well together.

Michigan State, I felt, was going to be too much for Memphis and they were, just because they are so aggressive and so dedicated to defense and rebounding. They’ll win that war or coach Izzo is going to find out the reason why and guys don’t want to have to answer to him. They love playing for him, but they know that it’s going to have to be done the way he wants it done. And the way it’s been done over the years has led to a national championship and an unbelievable six Final Four appearances under Tom Izzo.

Historically, both schools have had great teams in the past – just not very often in the same time periods. I can even remember as a kid being in awe of Jumpin’ Johnny Greeen and the Spartans in the ’50s when they made it to the Final Four, losing a heartbreaker to North Carolina in the 1957 semifinals. Talk about your epic Final Four – the Tar Heels not only beat the Spartans in triple overtime to get to the championship game, they then beat Kansas and the great Wilt Chamberlain in the title game in yet another triple overtime game.

Then there was the 1979 NCAA champions of Michigan State led by Magic Johnson and Gregory Kelser, a team that won the most famous NCAA title game ever. That team and that game will never be forgotten. And then you had the Mateen Cleaves team that won it all in 2000, a title that really put Tom Izzo’s program up there with the elites of college basketball.

And I was a big fan of Cazzie Russell, Bill Buntin and Oliver Darden on the Michigan teams of the middle ’60s that went to two straight Final Fours and lost to the great UCLA team of John Wooden in the 1965 championship game. I remember being completely frustrated because I couldn’t watch the game. It wasn’t on live wherever I was – things have sure changed since then, haven’t they?

Michigan’s NCAA title team in 1989 won it the same year the Pistons won their NBA title, which made it a truly magical year for hoops in our state.

And when you think about it, the most recent title teams from the Spartans and Wolverines have all sent players to the Pistons: Gregory Kelser, my TV sidekick, from the ’79 Spartan championship squad; Terry Mills and Loy Vaught from the ’89 U of M champs; and Mateen Cleaves, now our studio analyst on Fox Sports Detroit, a first-round choice from the 2000 Michigan State champions. And all four of them were high school players in Michigan, as well. When you think about it, our state and our two largest schools don’t have to take a back seat to anybody when it comes to college basketball.