Greg Jones will be a typical Spartans fan on Saturday night, plopping down in front of a TV at a friend's house at Final Four time.
The difference is, somewhere in the deep recesses of his brain, Jones believes he can play with those guys in Indianapolis. Mostly because he has played with those guys.
"A little bit," Michigan State's All-American middle linebacker said of the odd pickup game he gets in with Tom Izzo's guys. "I'm not too bad. I pride myself on being one of the better basketball players on the football team."
|Greg Jones (154 tackles in '09) leads a trio of stellar LBs for the Spartans. (US Presswire)|
But basketball is a pastime for Jones, not a vocation. He broke his hand during his junior year at Cincinnati Moeller High and gave up the sport to concentrate on football. The next year Moeller won the state championship. Oh well.
"It was [disappointing] but at the same time I was happy for my school," Jones said. "I was coming here, I was committed here. I had my scholarship. It all worked out."
It worked out to the point that Jones is the next great Big Ten linebacker in an era that has produced a few -- A.J. Hawk, Paul Posluszny, James Laurinaitis, etc.
Jones was part of an idea this week to take a reverse look at the Final Four programs -- in football. It is as unlikely a group as the one in Indianapolis. Michigan State fought through an off-field scandal to go to its third consecutive bowl game. Duke came within a game of breaking an ignominious sub-.500 streak. West Virginia goes into Year 3 of the Bill Stewart era seemingly loaded and looking for a Big East title. And Butler? Let's just say coach Jeff Voris has as much time on his hands as basketball coach Brad Stevens doesn't this week.
"We've had five spring practices and everyone on campus has been watching basketball," Voris said. "We haven't had any visitors."
That's not exactly the case for Michigan State football, but the Spartan interest does tend to be focused on basketball this time of year. Understandably. During Izzo's 15 seasons, football has had two more winning seasons (seven) than coaches (five). No. 5 is Mark Dantonio, whose 22 wins are tied for the most by one Michigan State coach during a three-year span since George Perles from 1987-89 (23).
"I feel like we're a team on the rise," Jones said. "A lot of other teams don't expect it, which is perfectly fine. I believe in what we're doing."
Dantonio obviously will build around his star. Outside linebackers Chris Norman and Eric Gordon put the group in the conversation for the conference's top trio at that position. Jones started his career as an outside linebacker but was quickly switched to the middle, where became the first Spartan in five years to put together back-to-back 100-tackle seasons.
The surprise for Michigan State in 2010 is that Jones is even around. In January, he announced to the surprise of some that he was staying for his senior season. Jones said he got a draft projection ranging from the first to the third round. The NFL was too big a risk as it was without some certainty in draft position.
|Butler||11-1||Won Gridiron Classic|
|Michigan State||6-7||Lost Alamo Bowl|
|West Virginia||9-4||Lost Gator Bowl|
"I was kind of surprised he stayed in school," said Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com. "I'm glad he did, it's in his best interest. At linebacker you learn to play by repetition. He'll get a lot more reps. He makes a lot of tackles. He makes a lot of tackles within a couple of yards within the line of scrimmage. A lot of guys make tackles, but they're eight yards down the field. "
There was a paradox to 2009. The Spartans went to a bowl game, but finished below .500 (6-7). Jones broke out but the season could have been a lot better. Michigan State lost five games by eight points or less. The whole thing was overshadowed by mass player suspensions following a Nov. 22 on-campus fight.
"I had just had dinner with my parents," said Jones, a team captain. "I had no clue about any of that. I really feel like I could have stopped it, I have no doubt in my mind. They made some mistakes and are probably still paying for it. We want them back, probably still need them back.
"But I wasn't happy about it, definitely. It leaves no room for error."
Eleven players were suspended for the bowl game. Five have been reinstated. The incident served to distract from one the best defensive seasons in Michigan State history. To go along with his 154 tackles, Jones had 13½ tackles for loss and nine sacks.
Still, Michigan State's defense has miles to go. Jones has one more year to correct a D that surrendered more than 1,600 yards in the final three games. The Big Ten's best defensive player says he wants to work on his "passing game."
"I'm very disappointed that I have no interceptions," he said. "I want to be a scoring factor on defense."
When one team goes to the Final Four, and your team is sitting in front of the TV, every little bit helps.
If you thought
|The Bulldogs won 11 games last year and claimed a share of the Pioneer League title. (Butlersports.com)|
"You've got to find a guy who is a true student-athlete," said Voris, 24-21 and beginning his fifth season. "When it's not time to play, he's passionate about something else. We're not putting out NFL guys. We're putting out doctors and lawyers who are passionate about football."
Butler plays in a conference with matching values. No scholarships, emphasis on academics. The Pioneer League came together 17 years ago when the NCAA mandated that schools have to play all their sports in the same division. Lower-division football wasn't an option with Butler basketball playing at the highest level.
You at least have to like the travel in the 10-team league that stretches from sea (Jacksonville University) to shining sea (University of San Diego).
"[Members] came from different places, orphans from Division II and Division III. Some were new startup programs," said Pioneer commissioner Patty Viverito. "The one thing we don't have in common is geography."
You've probably heard of the Pioneer before, you just don't know it. The University of San Diego is where Jim Harbaugh made the jump to Stanford. Voris isn't in that big a hurry. He takes recruits to basketball games at Hinkle Fieldhouse to show them where most of the magic happens at Butler.
There is a slight connection to the Final Four glory as the football Bulldogs practice in anonymity. Both Stevens and Voris played at Division III Depauw in Indiana at different times -- Stevens as a guard on the basketball team and Voris as a quarterback.
"You always hold out hope," Voris said.
He speaks not of another championship, but about getting Final Four tickets this week.
The biggest news to come out of Morgantown lately besides Bob Huggins' boys is Bill Stewart's bomb. Early last month during a television interview, West Virginia's football coach basically foretold the breakup of the Big East.
|Noel Devine has been spectacular for West Virginia, entering next season as a Heisman candidate. (US Presswire)|
"I really hate to see the Big East disband."
Stewart seemed to be ahead of even the fast-moving expansion bandwagon and quickly clarified his comments.
"When game-planning, coaches have to consider all scenarios, real and imagined, because you never know how your opponent will come at you next," Stewart said in a statement. "That's what I was doing -- thinking out loud."
Stewart does a lot of that. That's what makes him so endearing. As for his coaching chops, since standing at the brink of a national championship berth two years ago, a lot has changed for West Virginia. There was the contentious departure of Rich Rodriguez. Stewart came in and won 19 games (including the 2008 Fiesta Bowl).
The Mountaineers have been good, but not great lately. Quarterback Geno Smith replaces Jarrett Brown, who replaced the great Pat White. Smith got in five games last season due to Brown's injuries. Tailback Noel Devine (1,465 yards) is a Heisman candidate who has turned out to be more valuable than his rocky past would have suggested. Receiver Jock Sanders (72 catches) is one of the best in the Big East.
Devine and Sanders could have left early for the NFL but stayed, making the Mountaineers as formidable as any team in the Big East. As long as it stays together.
"The two best recruits we had, we kept," Stewart said. "We kept No. 7 [Devine], we kept No. 9 [Sanders]."
Duke got lucky because Tennessee got bossy.
|Historically weak Duke has won nine games in David Cutcliffe's two seasons. (US Presswire)|
Cutcliffe already had lost a previous job at Ole Miss rather than fire assistants.
So he remained at Duke, which is poised to become one of the bigger stories of 2010. In football. It has been 15 long years since the Blue Devils played in a bowl game and 21 years since they miraculously won a share of the ACC under Steve Spurrier.
The administration has finally caught on that it might be a good idea to give the basketball program some football it can be proud of. Wake Forest has done it. North Carolina has done it. It looks like it's going to happen in Durham under Cutcliffe, Peyton Manning's mentor at Tennessee and one of the most respected offensive coaches in the game.
This is what Dick Vitale doesn't care about telling you this week: The football Dookies came close to breaking that bowl-less streak. In early November, the Blue Devils were in line to win the Coastal Division.
Just reading those words should get Duke fired up about football, even in April. The receiving position is loaded. Ten-thousand-yard passer Thad Lewis has to be replaced. His replacement, Sean Renfree, sat out the spring recovering from an ACL injury. The defensive line has to be retooled. That might be a good thing, considering the defense faltered during a season-ending four-game losing streak that cost Duke that bowl.
Still, there is reason to be optimistic beyond Indianapolis. Cutcliffe has won nine games in his first two seasons. In the eight years before his arrival, Duke won a total of 10.