As Tom Izzo's crew, once thought to be disabled by guard Kalin Lucas' ruptured tendon, somehow continues to roll along in the NCAA Tournament, it dawns on me that while there are many reviled teams in this country (Kentucky seems particularly oft-hated, as does Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, among others), that it's rare to find a juggernaut of a college basketball team which, by and large, is extremely well-liked. Such would seem to be the odd case of Michigan State. Travel the country and you'll likely rarely hear "Michigan State? I HATE Michigan State." Yet there are reasons to hate them: they're consistently solid performers in regular season play and Big Ten postseason action, and have two NCAA Tourney trophies under their belts. For many sports fans, a good team has infinite hatability; after all, they may beat your team next. But why does Michigan State continue to slip through those cracks? And how has Michigan State emerged this season as one of the pluckiest, loved teams in the Final Four (even if they may be a dark horse)? Let's investigate.
Two words: Izzo, Tom. How can you dislike Tom Izzo? The man dresses like a war-torn Spartan to rile the fans, is loved beyond compare by the student body of Michigan State and can recruit the nose right off your face. But he's also taken a fifth-seeded team with a host of troubles and figured out how to get them to the Final Four. That's impressive. Add in the fact that you will never see a coach as despondent as Izzo after a loss (he's a notorious self-blamer) and the seemingly giddy high he seems to ride after a win, and the classic coach doesn't just seem like a guy you want coaching you on the court but a guy you wouldn't mind hanging out with off-court as well.
Good Kids. You can't not like this Spartan team. After superstar Kalin Lucas lost the rest of his season to a ruptured achilles tendon during an amazing win against Maryland during the second round of the tourney, even the experts thought the season was over. The experts were wrong, thanks to a rally by Lucas' teammates to sally forth without him. Just look at the grin on leader-to-be Korie Lucious' face as he inherits the mantle, witness the infectious elation of Draymond Green or the fistpumping of Raymar Morgan as they work absolutely harder than they've ever had to work before. Izzo is a good recruiter who recruits good kids, and as a result the Spartans are consistently likeable and rootable.
Classy fans. I've known a lot of Michigan State alumni and fans in my day, and I've never had one of them put their team in my face. That's quite impressive. I know, of course, there has to be a segment of over-rabid Spartan fans, but by my own microcosm I've yet to meet a State fan who wanted to convert me or compare accomplishments. Even the Izzone, for all its wildness, is amazingly polite and focused in its madness. Maybe it's that same midwestern sensibility that makes a city like Chicago so much more palatable than a New York, but I just don't have any beef with the Spartans. And if they have any beef with me, they're polite about it.
Has Michigan State garnered enough good karma to take them all the way? Will they continue to fuel themselves on good old-fashioned gumption and ingenuity? Will Izzo, that master commander, be able to continue creating strategy minute to minute until his crew is at the top of the heap? One thing's for sure: Michigan State is in this thing, and they've earned it. Where they go from here is their own decision.