By John Feinstein
Monday, April 6, 2009
If you were going to write a script for Monday's national championship game, it would go something like this: The forces of good are fighting to overcome the odds and spread light throughout the land against the forces of evil, who have all the power, speed, quickness and the experience.
Michigan State isn't just David taking on Goliath; it is David With a Cause. North Carolina has certainly played the role of the unbeatable giant throughout the NCAA tournament, wiping out one opponent after another with almost shocking ease.
The only problem with this story line is this: The Tar Heels aren't evil; they're just really, really talented.
"I'm as big a Tom Izzo fan as there is," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said of the Spartans coach on Sunday. "I just won't be one on Monday night."
That's certainly not an unreasonable position. In a basketball sense, Williams and his team have as much at stake Monday night as Izzo and the Spartans do. The difference is the Tar Heels haven't become a national symbol in the past two weeks.
"We're the blue-collar team, and this is the blue-collar city," Izzo said after Michigan State beat Connecticut in Saturday's first semifinal. "We understand that this isn't just about basketball."
Izzo's right. Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun understood that after hearing the roars of the more than 72,000 people wedged into Ford Field. He spoke eloquently about what Izzo and his team had done for Detroit in the wake of the auto industry's downfall and all that has befallen the city economically in the past year.
Williams is every bit as sensitive as Calhoun. But on Monday he will be a basketball coach trying to win one of the biggest games of his life. His team was anointed as this season's probable champion before a shot was taken or a screen was set. He and his players have been candid about the fact that anything short of winning the national championship will be a disappointment.
"Last year we got to the Final Four, and we were just happy to be here," North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough said. "This year we won't be happy unless we come out of here as the winners."
By all logical basketball standards, they should. Their 83-69 victory over Villanova on Saturday was as much a clinic as it was a basketball game. The Wildcats, who had played so well on defense to get here, looked helpless at times as Carolina made 11 of 22 three-point attempts and then got the ball inside whenever it wanted with Ty Lawson constantly breaking down the defense and Hansbrough controlling the lane.
Even so, the old cliche that anything can happen in one game is true, although the last truly stunning upset was 12 years ago when Arizona took down Kentucky. This would not be an upset of Villanova-Georgetown or North Carolina State-Houston proportions, but it would certainly be remarkable.
And yet . . .
"They've become a special team in the last two weeks," Calhoun said. "I thought Louisville was playing the best basketball of anyone, and they won that game going away. I was stunned by that."
One of the keys for the Spartans on Saturday was Raymar Morgan finding his game again. After a bout with mononucleosis and walking pneumonia in January, Morgan had struggled and had been a nonfactor throughout the tournament. Saturday, after Izzo took him aside in the locker room prior to the game to tell him to relax and let the game come to him, Morgan responded with 18 points and nine rebounds.
He will need to play a similar game Monday night. So will Michigan State's guards, Kalin Lucas and Travis Walton. They will have to to slow down Lawson, and all the Spartans will have to find Carolina's shooters, especially Danny Green and Wayne Ellington.
"I expect about 80 percent of the crowd to be for them," Williams said. "We expect to be facing all of Michigan."
Spoken like a true Dean Smith disciple. No one in the history of sports was better than Smith at finding ways to limit expectations for his team. Lefty Driesell once said of Smith, "He's the only man in history with 800 wins who has been the underdog in every one of them."
That was part of Smith's genius, and Williams will put that to work for this game. His players will jog down the long tunnel leading from the locker room to the court Monday convinced that not a soul in the building wants to see them win. When North Carolina beat Illinois for the championship in St. Louis four years ago, most of that crowd was pulling for the Illini, whose campus was just a couple of hours drive from the Edward Jones Dome.
"This will be like a road game," Lawson said. "But we're pretty good on the road."
At the end of road wins Smith always like to tell his players to, "listen for the silence," a sound he considered as sweet as any he ever heard. Williams and his players will be doing that Monday night, looking to silence a crowd that is hoping, as Izzo put it, "for one more miracle."
Whichever coach wins this game will be sitting on top of the college basketball world in ways that go beyond this national championship. It will be the second title for either Williams or Izzo. Williams has now been to seven Final Fours at two schools in 18 seasons and is coaching in his fourth final. Izzo has been to five Final Fours in 11 seasons and is in his second championship game. With Mike Krzyzewski (three titles, 10 Final Fours) having not been to the last weekend since 2004, Billy Donovan (back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007) having gone to two straight NITs and Calhoun perhaps being at or near the end of his career, the mantle appears to be passing. Monday night's winner will surely wear it, at least for a while.
If this were a movie, there isn't much doubt about how it would end. Michigan State would fight from behind, and someone -- perhaps Lucas, who asked to be introduced as being from Detroit on Saturday even though he grew up about 25 miles from here -- would make a shot at the buzzer to complete the dream and the miracle. America would weep for the blue-collar team from the blue-collar town.
The only thing blue about the Tar Heels are their uniforms. Through no fault of their own, they have become the villain in this Monday night melodrama.
Regardless of the outcome, college basketball will crown a worthy champion Monday night. When the game is over, CBS will play "One Shining Moment" as it always does. If Carolina wins, America will watch. If Michigan State wins, America will sing along, and there won't be a dry eye -- here or anyplace else.