SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Scouring through the game film, the roster and the tea leaves in search of any advantage his team might have over Michigan State, Monte Ross finally found it.
“Coach Izzo’s lack of tournament experience,” he said.
Cue the rim shot. But, seriously, over the past few days, laughing is about the only thing the Delaware coach can do to keep from crying.
This particularly unlucky No. 13 seed drew a matchup Thursday against Tom Izzo and the Spartans, who were seeded fourth in the East but have been a trendy title pick from Las Vegas to Washington.
Yes, President Barack Obama has the Spartans winning it all. The Delaware coach finds very little room to disagree.
“In watching them, they just keep getting better and better,” Ross said. “So I think I’m just going to do myself a service and stop watching them.”
What he’ll be missing is a team that has gotten healthy, is peaking at the right time and has a coach who pushes the buttons the best when March rolls around.
Izzo himself has no problem putting this team in the echelon of his three previous Final Four teams, the last of which fell to Butler in the semifinals in 2010.
“You look at some of the programs that have done it with consistency, and they’ve had to deal with pressure and they have to handle it,” he said.
The talent has never been in question. The Spartans were ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press poll for three weeks starting in November.
But injuries and illnesses hit hard. Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, the Big Ten tournament’s most valuable player, all missed time. And that was just in Michigan State’s starting lineup.
Dawson returned March 1 after missing nine games with a broken right hand, which gave Izzo his full complement of players for the first time in about two months. Less than two weeks later, the Spartans (26-8) were cutting down nets in Indianapolis.
“I thought we got some of our identity back,” Izzo said. “And that’s what you need if you’re going to make a run of any kind in the tournament.”
So, while the Spartans start on what some believe will be a championship march, the Blue Hens (25-9) come in knowing they only have to be the better team for a couple hours.
“I just told the guys, if we are able to play the way I expect us to play, I’ll probably get a call from Warren Buffett, because he’ll be the happiest person in the world,” Ross said. “We’ll break up everybody’s bracket and there will be no billion-dollar payout.”
Five things to look for when Delaware plays Michigan State:
DEALING WITH EXPECTATIONS: Izzo said he held a meeting with his team to discuss all the great things people are saying about them. Two weeks ago, the Spartans were being ripped left and right. This week, they’re being picked by the President. “I was a little worried about, how do your kids handle getting barbed on the Internet two weeks ago, and then some of the top people in sports and the No. 1 person in the United States is picking you?” he said.
NERVES: Well, it is the first game of the tournament for the Spartans and they must feel some pressure, too, right? Ross is hoping that might work in favor of his team, which was saddled with few expectations when it won the Colonial Athletic Association to earn its first trip to the tournament since 1999 — and even fewer once the pairings came out. “Who settles in first, who makes their first shot and sees that ball go in the rim, is going to be a big deal,” Ross said.
REBOUNDING: It’s the hallmark of any good Michigan State team. The Spartans averaged 11.1 offensive rebounds a game over the season, which was only sixth in the Big Ten. In the tournament, though, they increased that to 13 a game.
WHO TO GUARD: All five Delaware starters average in double figures. None has as good a chance to go off as Davon Usher, who went for 25 or more in eight of his team’s 34 games. Usher needs 17 points to set the Delaware single-season scoring record.
JUD’S HOUSE: After Jud Heathcoate retired from Michigan State in 1995, he pushed hard to have Izzo succeed him. Then, Heathcoate moved to Spokane. The 86-year-old patriarch of Michigan State hoops will be on hand to watch his protege Thursday. “I value his knowledge, I value his friendship, and he taught me more than anybody about the game of basketball,” Izzo said.