The Year of the Izzo

Championship prediction: Big Ten dark horse gallops to victory

If North Carolina head coach Roy Williams can't win a national championship with the NBA-caliber collection of talent he's got on his hands -- a long, versatile Tar Heel team that could give half the Eastern Conference a run for its money -- then he should seriously consider retirement. Aw-shucks Roy and his fake tan helmed Kansas teams that perennially knocked at glory's door, but he never got it done. Alas, finally entrenched at his Chapel Hill alma mater, this should finally be Roy's year.

Instead, it'll be the Year of the Izzo. Again.

Everybody talks about how Louisville, nationally ranked number four, got the screwiest draw by drawing the four seed out West. But in truth it was Izzo's Spartans whose dance card was the most formidable. Get your head around this one for a second: Michigan State's road to St. Louis went through Duke and Kentucky.

Michigan State guard Shannon Brown (pointing) and 
his teammates celebrate their win over Kentucky to 
advance to the Final Four. Our "expert" predicts more 
Spartan partyin'.
Jeff Mitchell/Reuters
Michigan State guard Shannon Brown (pointing) and his teammates celebrate their win over Kentucky to advance to the Final Four. Our "expert" predicts more Spartan partyin'.

Nobody does that.

Michigan State seems to do something a lot like it every other year, but this is the school's most impressive run to date, with the stoic Izzo deftly siccing his ocean-deep, ultra-athletic rotation on college basketball's most revered coach (Krzyzewski) and program (the house that Rupp built) -- in a single weekend, no less.

Izzo's Spartans are like the three-year-old horse that peaks at just the right time for the Kentucky Derby. Never mind that said Thoroughbred has been handled convincingly in a prep by the front-runner (Illinois); this is winning time. And if college coaches are like horse trainers, Izzo is the Nick Zito of the NCAA. Even in years he shouldn't be in contention, he's in contention. And here he is again, with a roster chock-a-block with brick-shithouse swingmen who have a knack for hitting clutch shots and dunking in the faces of burly power forwards.

After the Spartans dispose of North Carolina via a plethora of Shannon Brown facials (prediction: the Tar Heels will blow an eight-point lead with five minutes to play, a hallmark of Roy Williams squads), they'll get a second and final date with the quasi-hometown Illini and what promises to be a Dome at least half-filled with orange. That this will be an all-Big Ten final is extra sweet for the league, which everyone (including yours truly) thought was mired in a down year. When the league's player of the year (Dee Brown) isn't even the best player on his own team -- a distinction that, for my money, belongs to the brilliant floor general Deron Williams and his vintage midrange game and steely D -- that should say something to somebody.

But when an overlooked fifth seed from the same conference goes through Duke and Kentucky to get to the show -- that says even more. And in the Year of the Izzo, the unlikeliest of championship fiestas will explode onto the streets of East Lansing come Monday night.

In the interest of full disclosure, Mike Seely's Final Four picks in the office pool were Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma State and Gonzaga.

 
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