Before it was an environmental clarion call spouted by business and government leaders everywhere, the phrase “go green” was the Michigan State Spartans’ battle cry. For those lucky enough to be in Detroit this weekend (Yes, it’s weird describing Detroit as a coveted destination) you’ll hear lots of “go green” and “go white” as MSU becomes the first team to play in the Final Four in their home state since Duke laced them up in Charlotte in 1994. When Tom “H to tha” Izzo brings his Spartans to Ford Field, a venue 92 miles from their campus, his resume will include 11 straight NCAA appearances, 5 Final Fours in those 11 years, a National Championship in 2000 and a 30-10 overall tournament record. With the recent collapse of the Indiana Hoosier program, Sparty has become the Big Ten’s (and the Midwest in general) finest program. No other team from the heartland is a March Madness fixture like the Spartans, with Izzo preparing each and every one of his recruited four-year players for Final Four glory. But this success is a more recent phenomenon.
State wasn’t admitted into the Big Ten until 1995 and the nation didn’t really “Meet the Spartans” until the Jud Heathcote era (1976-1995). They weren’t considered a power until the 1979 National championship- when Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and company defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana St. team in the highest watched game in college history. This established East Lansing as a haven for stellar guard play. The list includes Steve Smith, Scott Skiles, Eric Snow, Shawn Respert, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, Jason Richardson, Shannon Brown, Drew Neitzel and current Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas. Lucas spoke about his conversations with Mateen Cleaves, the floor general on the last Spartan championship team. “Mateen tells me this is my team and I have to be the general, I have to run the team, I have to give guys shots, but I also have to get my shots,” Lucas said.
The hard-line Izzo leads teams that get better as the season progresses and excel in rebounding (currently first nationally) and defense. “Defense can be measured in a lot of ways: points allowed, opposing field goal percentage, but it’s almost like what Jay Bilas says about heart, you measure it when things are on the line. And I thought down the stretch our defense is getting better, it’s been pretty solid when we’ve had the right lineups in there,” Izzo said