By Mike Wilcox
The last two weeks of March is my favorite time of year. Maybe winter at last giving way to spring has something to do with it, but more likely it’s March Madness, the NCAA’s version of football’s Super Bowl.
I can’t remember the last March I wasn’t glued to the television set or computer watching game after game of college basketball’s best teams compete. After Sunday’s incredibly close games, the field of 64 had been narrowed to the four best teams and one of them wasn’t most prognosticators’ favorite, Duke.
That’s because one of my favorite teams, the Michigan State Spartans, thanks to a Kenny Goins’ last minute three, beat the Blue Devils by one point. This was right after my second-favorite team, the Auburn Tigers, had bounced one of the winningest programs in basketball history, Kentucky, from the tournament in overtime.
I grew up in Michigan, have spent most of my adult life there and followed the Spartans for many decades. Now I live within 20 miles of the Auburn campus and am a keen observer of Tiger sports.
This weekend Michigan State squares off against Texas Tech and Auburn takes on Virginia. The winners meet in the national championship game Monday night. I’m rooting for a Spartan-Tiger final two. It would be an amazing journey for either team to be crowned the very best.
Auburn is a football school. Their pigskin pedigree runs deep in the Southeastern Conference. Until Bruce Pearl, their affable basketball head coach, arrived, few paid attention to War Eagle basketball.
Pearl, who had hastily been broomed as head coach of Tennessee for improprieties that were never proven, has provided Auburn with the most excitement at Toomer’s Corner since Cam Newton was in town.
At the start of March Madness the Tigers were at 100 to 1 odds to win it all. All they have done is beat three college bluebloods: Kansas, No. 1 seed North Carolina and Kentucky on their road to the Final Four. Now they face another No. 1 seed, Virginia, this weekend.
Despite their best player going down to injury against the Tar Heels, I would not bet against the Tigers. They have the mojo and two pint-sized guards who run circles around most teams.
Michigan State’s road to the Final Four has been easier. Everyone bemoaned their regional slate when they saw Duke as the No. 1 seed and prohibitive favorite to win it all. MSU paid no mind. I believe they relished the opportunity to send the best home.
Despite losing sixth man Kyle Ahrens to injury in a late game of the regular season, Big 10 basketball fans knew the Spartans were poised to make a late-season run.
That’s what they did. Coach Tom Izzo is no stranger to Final Fours: this is his eighth. Some consider him the best coach in college basketball, but the last year has not been easy. Like Pearl’s checkered past, Izzo was proclaimed guilty by association because he was part of the same athletic program that jailed gymnast doctor Larry Nassar was. He had to defend his innocence and ward off some who called for his resignation.
Then it happened again in the tournament when he publicly admonished freshman Aaron Henry for not hustling. Some snowflake media types were offended that Izzo would scream at a player in front of TV cameras. Former players came to his aid, proclaiming Izzo was only being Izzo and players respected his fiery temperament.
I guess you could say both coaches have been vindicated. Auburn has never made it to the Final Four, but Pearl has them there now. MSU has made a habit of long tournament runs, but after what Izzo has faced this year this run was unexpected.
Come this weekend I’ll be rooting for both. Both have overcome adversity and are highly deserving of the National Championship title.